Kino and the woman question

Bed and Sofa

The latest volume to be added to the straining virtual shelves of the Bioscope Library is Judith Mayne’s Kino and the woman question: feminism and Soviet silent film, first published in 1989, and now made freely available ponline by Ohio State University Libraries’ Knowledge Bank. The book is a study of Soviet silent films in terms of their understanding of the position of women within socialist culture. The argument is made that the representation of women in such films subverted their ostensibly straightforward ideological and cinematic goals. The films given particular analysis are Strike, Mother, Fragments of an Empire, Bed and Sofa and Man with a Movie Camera. The book is available as a downloadable and word-searchable PDF, and is another welcome example of a university press making some of its back number freely available to all now that their commercial life is over. Nobody loses, and plenty will gain.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 34

The Bioscope’s occasional news service returns with the usual varied mix of silent films happening here and there which don’t otherwise feature on this blog.

Remembering the Somme
On today, the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the eleventh year, let us draw your attention to the most notable film of the First World War, The Battle of the Somme (1916). As recently reported, the film is about to go on tour in the UK with orchestral accompaniment, the score written by Laura Rossi. Not many silents get to be toured with an orchestra, and though the orchestras invovled are amateurs, the costs are inevitably high, and should you wish to help support such a bold venure financially then you can do so by visting the ‘crowfunding website WeDidThis. The tour opens in Leicester tomorrow. Read more.

3D Charlie
We reported last year on the plans of an Indian TV company to produce an animated 3D Charlie Chaplin series, but there is news of plans by a Turkish company to attempt 3D conversions of some of Chaplin’s original films to form a 90-minute film entitled Chaplin 3D – The Little Tramp’s Adventure. One’s first reaction is to throw up one’s hands in horror; the next reaction is to hope to have a chance to see just what it might look like. Intriguingly, they have gone to the best sources for their footage: Serge Bromberg and David Shepherd, with Robert Israel signed up to provide the music. The results are reported to be impressive. Hmm, we shall have to see. Read more.

Remembering Kristallnacht
Sunday 13 November will see an unusual example of silent film presentation at Belsize Square Synagogue in London. The Zemel Choir (“The UK’s leading mixed voice Jewish choir”), in commeroation of Kristallnacht, will be presenting a 1936 silent film, Hatikvah, shot by a German-Jewish filmmaker, showing pioneering Jewish settlers in Palestine. Intriguingly, the choral and orchestral accompaniment will in part derive from some of the generic silent film music scores recently unearthed at Birmingham Central Library. It’s an unexpected outcome of that exciting discovery, and one wonders to what other ends those scores might be used in time. Read more.

On Irish screens
There seems to be quite a bit of publishing activity on the Irish silent cinema (and pre-cinema) front at the moment. Hot on the heels of Gary Rhodes’ Emerald Illusions: The Irish in Early American Cinema comes two new books by Kevin Rockett and Emer Rockett, shortly to be published by Fourt Courts Press. Magic lantern, panorama and moving picture shows in Ireland, 1786-1909 covers the history of proto-cinematic experiences in Ireland up to the first film shows, while Film exhibition and distribution in Ireland, 1909-2010, “traces in forensic detail the social, cultural and business practices that comprise the Irish cinema phenomenon”. Read more.

Remembering Barbara Kent
The Bioscope neglected to note the passing last month of Barbara Kent, at the age of 103. Kent was perhaps the last of the headline silent film stars, having played leading roles alongside Garbo and Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil, in William Wyler’s terrific The Shakedown, and in Paul Fejos classic late silent Lonesome. Among the many obituaries, Ronald Bergan’s in The Guardian has perhaps the most detail. Read more.

(And just a little extra item – those of you in the UK, should you by some strange chance finding yourself watching The One Show on Tuesday evening, you will see yours truly talking about film star competition winner and Buster Keaton co-star Margaret Leahy, with the redoubtable Gyles Brandreth.)

‘Til next time!

Archive fever

Time for another research resource, and this looks like a major one. ArchiveGrid, still in beta form, aims to be a gateway to the world’s archives. It has been created by OCLC, the library organisation behind WorldCat (“the world’s largest library catalog”). Much as WorldCat turns the catalogues of the world’s libraries into one giant catalogue, so ArchiveGrid wants to become the single place from which the researcher may discover anything held in an archive, anywhere.

OK, so it’s some way off such an ambition just yet, being largely composed of American archives, and they are collection descriptions rather than individual items (I think we’re going to have a long wait for that to happen). Each record gives you the name of the contributing institution, the title of the particular collection (each institution may have several collections, of course), the collection description, contact details (a link to the institution’s website), and catalogue record (including unique OCLC identifier) or finding aid. Searches can be narrowed by institution or location, there is a selection of topics to guide you through the collections. And by typing in your postal code you can see on a Google map which participating archives are in your area.

So, what can we find on silent films? The answer is plenty. Our standard test term, ‘kinetoscope’, brings up the Raff and Gammon papers at Harvard University – Baker Library, a typescript study of Thomas Edison by Rose Lombard in Harvard University – Theodore Roosevelt Collection, and the Library of Congress’ Inventing Entertainment website, which Pennsylvania State University Libraries has cited as a resource. ‘Cinematograph’ produces 38 hits, from the Paul Rotha papers at UCLA to the United Artists Corporation Records at Wisconsin Historical Society Library and Archives. ‘Silent film’ brings up 260 records: examples include the silent film music collection at the University of Colorado, Boulder; Lillian Gish papers at Bowling Green State University – Center for Archival Collections; and the Cecil B. DeMille Archives at Brigham Young University – L. Tom Perry Special Collections.

Much of this sort of information has been available in printed directories, but not, I think, in so extensive and freely available an online resource as this (ArchiveGrid has had an earlier existence as a subscription service, which didn’t get enough subscribers). Clearly it is a huge boon for research of every kind. It is mostly written archives, but not exclusively so; while some of the archival objects might be more naturally classified as books, so that you wonder how WorldCat and ArchiveGrid might be brought together in some way, at some glorious future point.

There are other directories of archives out there. UK researchers should be familiar with the National Archives’ National Register of Archives and the Access 2 Archives search resource, but perhaps not all know the university archives service Archives Hub, or AIM25 for archives in the London area. We have previously higlighted the Canadian Discovery Portal, and sung the praises of Australia’s Trove portal. Regrettably the UNESCO Archives Portal for archives worldwide is no longer accessible online.

New to me is Archives Portal Europe, a pilot service for opening up European archives, which doesn’t appear to have a great deal on film, and what can be found seems eccentric or marginal, though its multilingual nature is likely to hiding more than I realise (try the search terms ‘cinema’ or ‘kino’ for an idea of the range of content).

Directories of film archives are another matter, and should be the subject of another post. Meanwhile ArchiveGrid is a particularly exciting development, and likely to spark off plenty of new research projects. Go explore.


Tacita Dean’s artwork Film, projected in the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London

Will film die? Seen in one way, it never will: our cinematic history exists on celluloid and as long as there are viable film cameras and film, someone will be shooting it. Seen another way, film is already dead … what we see today is the after-life of a medium that has become increasingly marginalized in production and distribution of films and TV. Just as the last film camera was sold without headlines or fireworks, the end of film as a significant production and distribution medium will, one day soon, arrive, without fanfare.

Anyone with an interest in cinema can hardly have failed to pick up on the news that, apparently, film is dead. An article by Debra Kaufman for Creative Cow, ‘Film Fading to Black‘, from which the above quote comes, has had a huge impact, with many writing obituary columns for the medium in the face of the inexorable rise of digital. Kaufman’s specific impetus was the news that three major producers of film cameras, ARRI, Panavision and Aaton, have each over the past year decided to cease production of film cameras.

Kaufman’s article is not quite as brutal as the headlines might suggest. ARRI and the rest might not be producing new film cameras, but it is pointed out that there are plenty of film cameras out there already, which are presumably being kept to good use. There is no indication yet that Kodak and Fuji, the major producers of film stock, are to cease production, even though the demand for release prints is falling and the profit margins shrinking. 50% of American cinemas may now be digital, but that’s still 50% that aren’t, even if digital screens are being added at a rate of some 750 a month. Film archives still see film as the best preservation medium for film itself, with cold storage solutions for a medium already proven to last 100 years preferable to the huge uncertainties around digital, given the rapid obsolesence of file formats and technologies. Film hasn’t quite come to the end of the road yet.

But the end is in sight, isn’t it? Whatever the claims those of a traditional frame of mind make for the special visual qualities of film, it is on its way out. Nothing lasts forever, and film is after all just a carrier of images. If a more efficient, more flexible and – let’s face it – more appealing medium as far as the general public is concerned turns up, namely digital, then we bow to historical inevitability. Moving images may not ever look quite the same, as digital’s cleaness, brightness and rather antiseptic effect override film’s more textured and subtle qualities (though cinematographers are increasingly championing digital as new cameras promise deeper, richer qualities), but who in the end will notice? Things change, because things always change.

Certainly future audiences won’t miss anything in the switch from film to digital, and that’s not just because they will lack our experience of seeing film but because people change just the same as technologies change. They will grow up at ease with something else. So it is a rather odd experience that is provided at the moment by the installation Film at Tate Modern, which bemoans the disappearance of analogue. Film is an artwork by Tacita Dean. It takes the form of a giant projection (portrait shaped) on the far wall of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. Dean has devised the work as an expression of her concern at the threat to analogue film. It was shot, edited and is projected on film, and boasts an impressive list of production credits that is testimony to the craftmanship of film – grading, neg cutting, hand tinting, printing. As the exhibition notes state:

This is not a case of clinging to outmoded technology for nostalgia’s sake. As any practitioner will testify, digital and analogue formats are markedly different. The constraints and disciplines of working with a medium are essential to shaping the finished product. Photochemical film has its own distinctive texture and qualities, capturing light, colour, movement and depth in ways that digital cannot.

The eleven-minute film is abstract in form, being a succession of still and moving images bordered by perforations like a strip of film held vertically (as though passing through a projector). Images of buildings, trees, plants, water, circles, landscapes, rocks, but not people (apart from a fleeting figure passing by some stairs, and at one point a toe) play against and are overlaid with one another, someone with strong colour tinting reminiscent of the work of Len Lye. At a couple of points an eye appears in a circular frame that would appear to be a reference to G.A. Smith’s 1900 film Grandma’s Reading Glass, a key film in early film form. In most cases the images seem private to the artist and do not lend themselves to any particular interpretation except film itself.

It’s hypnotic stuff, but though plenty of people are watching it and children played happily in the light at the based of the screen, who among them really cares about film’s demise? Where are the lines of protestors outside cinemas, demanding that they see film as film? Where are the queues of unhappy customers returning their plasma screens to the shops, saying that the film experience is so much better? In truth, it’s not an issue that is going to concern anyone other than the afficionado and the specialist – and film/cinema is not the preserve of either of those. It is a popular medium, and the populace likes digital.

But that doesn’t mean the death of film, even after its main commercial life as over. Just as vinyl has survived the introduction of CD and audio files, so film is going to become the preserve of the select. Archives will still depend on it, though the rising costs of an increasingly rare medium (and rare skills able to maintain it) will mean higher access costs – if we want to see those films when they come out of cold storage so many years from now, we will have to pay handsomely for the privilege. Film buffs will still value it, and will collect prints and technologies required to show prints. They will sustain an aesthetic and cultural appreciation of film, and what will be exciting is when that appreciation is taken up by those who have grown up with digital but nevertheless look for something more in film. And artists, such as Tacita Dean, will continue to value it, for as long as it is available to them, for its plastic and particular qualities. Film is a canvas, after all.

The gloriously analogue Lomokino Movie Maker

And the first steps towards the second life of film as being made. I am greatful to Stephen Herbert for alerting me to the existence of Lomokino. Lomokino is a 35mm film camera for amateurs. Advertising itself as ‘gloriously analogue’, the camera allows you to shoot just 144 frames of film (curiously reminiscent of Twitter’s 140 characters) – and silent film at that. You need to find a lab able to process the film for you (which may prove tricky), then you can view your film via a LomoKinoScope viewer, or else scan it frame by frame, convert using iMovie, Windows Movie Maker or the like, and upload it to the Lomography site on Vimeo.

I’ve no idea whether this Austrian-based business is going to succeed, but its website certainly goes into a great deal of detail about how to make and present such films, with a large number of sample videos. There is a great range of cameras, film stock, accessories and bundles available on its online shop (including, I am intrigued to see, a Kinemacolor bundle). Do take a look – it feels like a cult in the making.

Sample Lomokino films

So film lives on, for the time being. It is important to the appreciation of silent cinema, because the entire genre (modern silents excepted) was produced using celluloid, whereas the history of sound cinema may run for centuries yet, of which just a few decades involved film as its primary medium. Yet silent cinema can also be rescued from historical oblivion by digital, given a new look and a new life, and that’s a cause for celebration. Silent films have a life beyond their temporary carriers. That they can change with the times is the best sign we have for their continued survival, and appreciation.

Festival time

The Pleasure Garden, from

2012 will of course see the Olympic Games in London, and the nation is cranking itself up in readiness. One of the things we’ve been promised was called the Cultural Olympiad, and was designed to be a jamboree of art and culture for all those people who don’t like sport. The name ‘Cultural Olympiad’ was awful, and the whole thing was staggering along badly, enthusing no one, until it was given a sharp kick by a new head (Ruth McKenzie), and now we have the London 2012 Festival officially announced, a nationwide festival of ambition, imagination and great variety – though still for people who don’t much like sport.

Well, this is all very good, and though I’m one of those who stubbornly thinks the Olympic Games is about sport, if we have a show or two thrown in, well who’s going to complain? And among the rich offering announced so far, which range from a World Shakespeare Festival to plans to have all the bells of the United Kingdom ring at the same time (in the name of art), there is going to be a place for silent film. From 1 June to 31 August there will be The Genius of Hitchcock, which will feature three of Hitchcock’s nine surviving silent feature films screened at venues across London, with new scores. A while ago the British Film Institute announced its Rescue the Hitchcock 9 preservation appeal, and while one has a nagging feeling that, of all the silent films out there, those made by Hitchcock have been quite well looked after so far and aren’t in any iminent peril, nevertheless is nice that they are getting the attention and being presented to new audiences. The Lodger, with a score by Nitin Sawhney, will be screening at the Barbican on 21 July; The Pleasure Garden, with a score by Daniel Patrick Cohen, at Wilton’s Music Hall on 28-29 June; while the venue, date and composer for Blackmail have yet to be announced. (By the way, someone should tell the Festival people that the still they have for Blackmail is actually Hitchcock’s The Manxman …)

Doubtless the Bioscope will have a few Olympic-themed posts in 2012, if only an update to our Silent Olympics post on the history of the Games’ coverage on film during the silent era, as new films have been discovered since we wrote the post in 2008.

But while we are celebrating this new festival, let’s also be thinking of festivals we won’t have the pleasure of experiencing. The Bird’s Eye View festival of women’s film, which has had a strong commitment towards programming silent films, has had a 90% cut in its funding for 2012, and consequently isn’t taking place next year. It hopes to return in 2013, and is continuing other activities, including its current Sound & Silents touring programme of films with new score by female composers. But it’s a sad loss.

Pordenone round-up

It’s taken three weeks, but we have now published the Bioscope’s diary for all eight days of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, or Giornate del Cinema Muto. The festival ran from 1-8 October 2011, and below are links to each day’s report, with some of the main films featured in those reports:

  • Day oneGantsirluni, Un Amore Selvaggio, Più che la morte
  • Day twoAsphalt, Mantrap, Die Sklavenkönigin (Moon of Israel)
  • Day threeAmerikanka, Chyortovo Koleso (The Devil’s Wheel), Japanese animation
  • Day fourThe Lady of the Dugout, Oblomok Imperii (Fragments of an Empire), La Voyage dans la lune, Shinel (The Overcoat)
  • Day fiveHintertreppe (Backstairs), The Force that through the Green Fire Fuels the Flower, The Circus, Khabarda (Out of the Way)
  • Day sixThe Great White Silence, Eliso, Fiaker Nr. 13, The Canadian
  • Day sevenCenere, Salomy Jane, The White Shadow
  • Day eightDas Spielzeug Von Paris (The Plaything of Paris), South, The Wind

There are other reports out there on the festival. Particularly recommended is the filmgoing diary of Finnish film programmer Antti Alanen, who gives full credits, catalogue descriptions and his own observations on every film he sees at Pordenone (and anywhere else for that matter). Other reports can be found on Silent London, Bristol Silents (c/o James Harrison), Jan-Christopher Horak on the Soviet films at the festival, while Reto Kromer reproduces all of his tweets from the festival here.

You can find details of every film show in sumptuous detail on the 2011 catalogue, helpfully divided up online section by section. There are also the Giornate’s Flickr photostream and its YouTube channel (interviews and the like rather than films shown). There is also the festival Twitter account, very active during the festival.

For details of all films shown at the festival 1982-2010, see the Giornate’s online database; while for past Bioscope reports on the festival, going back to 2007, visit the Series section of this blog.

Finally, you can see more pictures from this year’s festival on the Bioscope’s own Flickr photostream.

Next year’s festival runs 6-13 October 2012.

Pordenone diary 2011 – day eight

Waiting for the show to begin

The sun sets on another Giornate del Cinema Muto. Eight days of silent films from every corner of the globe, touching every subject and embracing every style imaginable. Our final day’s report once again comes from the Bioscope’s reporter à clef, The Mysterious X.

And so we arrive at the final day of the Giornate 2011. A bittersweet day, as inevitably there are mixed feelings as we prepare ourselves for all the goodbyes, to our fellow delegates, new friends and old, the people who work behind the scenes, and the good people of Pordenone who make us feel so welcome … and sigh a little sigh of relief that there isn’t a Day 9, and we can start to make up for the lack of sleep of the past week or so.

The last Saturday is the odd day out at Pordenone; the morning screenings are held at Cinemazero, Pordenone’s arthouse cinema half a mile up the Via Garibaldi from our usual hangouts, while the orchestra for the closing gala rehearses. The programme up there tends to be synchronised-score or early sound films that round off threads that have been running all week; so the offer this year was a couple of Italian-American films made for the New York Italian audience in the early 30s, and the remainder of the Shostakovich/FEKS material, taking the story up to Skazka O Glupom Myshonke (The Story of the Silly Little Mouse) (USSR 1940), a 1940 animation that Shostakovich scored, or rather, was animated to his music.

Well, it was a glorious day, the sky was the purest azure, the air clear … so I sat ouside the Posta and wrote up my notes while sampling their fine coffee; saving what remained of my energy for what promised to be a long night. Sorry. I’m sure the films were wonderful …

After a light lunch, a special screening of South – Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic Of The Antarctic (UK 1919), Frank Hurley’s masterpiece of documentary, avant la lettre. A film familiar to many of us, this screening was enhanced by both the subtle work of Stephen Horne and material from Shackleton’s expedition memoir, read by distinguished British actor Paul McGann. Cleverly handled, the readings were spare when the film grows intertitle-heavy, more expansive when useful in commenting on the images; carefully not overlapping either the appearance of titles onscreen or duplicating their information. It worked very well, Stephen and Paul barely visible onstage, but spectrally unlit and almost in the wings; their contribution definitely added to the film. While it would have been different to the original lecture presentations of the 1910s, it gave a sense of how they might have been; the low-key theatricality of the presentation respectful to the material, and adding to it.

Lili Damita and Georges Trevillein Das Spielzeug Von Paris, from

A very quick break, then the best of the early Disneys we saw, his modern retelling of Cinderella (USA 1922) which was great fun … and then Das Spielzeug Von Paris (The Plaything of Paris) (Austria 1925) from the Kertesz strand. As promised in the trailer previously screened, this was a pretty racy trip through the life and loves of Parisienne cabaret star Célimène, a young Lili Damita; adored by all Paris, but particularly by a dripping wet (and promised to another) young English diplomat, and a positively ancient French aristocrat playboy, who seems to view her as simply the latest addition to his collection. But then, at least in part, the film is all about possession. The aristocrat gives the impression he wants to hang her on the wall to be admired like a painting; the Englishman wants both to put her on a pedestal and take her on fishing holidays … but she belongs to Paris, as much as Paris belongs to her … this is not the ending that we see in Moulin Rouge, for example, where the showqueen goes back onstage and performs through the tears as Real Life has failed her … here, Célimène goes back to her cabaret stardom because … she wants to. It’s her Real Life, and she likes it that way. And eventually the Englishman understands that … the aristocrat always knew.

Lili Damita was a revelation here. Not always convincing in Fiacre No. 13 as the cabbie’s adopted daughter, here she was in her element; an-ex dancer herself, she was fabulous performing in the cabaret sequences, and was having great fun in the backstage sequences, being worshipped by the various suitors; and it seemed to be Lili in the howling gale, drenched in road mud, with the car coming full tilt at her … all told, a cracking film, with glamour, dance sequences, comedy, a few thrills … no great insight into the human condition, perhaps, but highly entertaining.

Lilian Gish in The Wind

I also missed – accidentally this time – two more Italian films from the 1910s, thinking the screenings had finished before the main event; The Wind (USA 1928) with Carl Davis conducting his own score for the Mitteleuropa Orchestra. Not having been around for the original Thames Silents presentations in the eighties, it’s always a treat to see these films and scores revived; Wings was a highlight of last year’s Giornate, and The Wind was, for me, this year. Somewhere in this room here I might have a VHS off-air from the last time British TV deigned to show the Photoplay print with this score … but nothing ever compares to seeing and hearing these presentations live.

The score for The Wind is slightly unusual among Davis’ work as it – as dictated by the film – is as suffused with musical and sound effects, as the film is with the visualisation of the incessant gale. You don’t get the lavishly orchestrated melodies that inhabit many of his scores, but it’s absolutely right for the film. And what a powerful film it is. Gish – who introduced the film herself via a tape made for the film’s previous Giornate outing in 1986 – is acting her socks off as the always vulnerable, but increasingly disturbed – and disturbing – young woman stuck in the middle of nowhere with a husband she doesn’t know. Opposite her is the superb, impassive Lars Hanson, like a rock being beaten by the waves of Gish’s performance. It’s heightened stuff, and with lesser performers could have tipped over into the ridiculous … but this is Gish and Hanson, and you get totally absorbed into the film. Wonderful.

And then the final programme … a smashing collection of films-about-filmgoing that really deserved to be shown at a more audience-friendly time of 10.30 pm on the last Saturday …

Al Cinematografo, Guardate … E Non Toccate (At the Cinema – Look, Don’t Touch) (Italy 1912) is a comedy where a predatory Ernesto Vaser tries to play footsie with a female audience member, and it all goes predictably wrong in the dark; Lost And Won (USA 1911) a slight drama where two forcibly seperated sweethearts are reunited when the boy, his fortune now made, sees her starring in a film … Amour et Science (France 1912) was a short sci-fi drama about a television experiment going horribly wrong; At The Hour of Three (UK 1912) was a rather fine drama, and early example of the ‘Filmed alibi’ situation; a man is accused of murder, but a chance appearance of him at a parade filmed for a newsreel, at the time of the murder, is spotted by his love … nicely made, it has the bonus for us Brits of footage taken inside the Clarendon Studios at Croydon, and a cinema at Selhurst designed to look like a victorian country cottage, bay windows, window boxes … Arthème, Opérateur (France 1913) didn’t make much of an impact; I can’t honestly remember a thing about it … Mutt and Jeff at the Movies (US 1920) finished the show off, with our animated heroes doing their best at running a picture house …

So, there we all are, the last straggling survivors of the Giornate 2011, milling around outside the Verdi at gone midnight, not sure where to go or what to do … what can you do in the early hours of a Sunday morning in Italy? Find a wine bar, talk films, drink wine, laugh a lot. At least I got to bed by 4 am this year …

Overall, in retrospect, it was a good year; the local populace were as welcoming and hospitable as always; we missed the Ciervo, a restaurant opposite the Verdi known for its good food and lightning service, now relocated to the ground floor of a hotel just far enough away to be slightly inconvenient, but the many others took up the strain; the staff at the Posta were as hardworking and patient with us as ever, and the gentlemen in local politics and sponsoring companies seemed pleased to continue to dip into their various purses to help the Giornate continue. Fingers crossed, the way the world is at the moment. The staff and volunteers of the Giornate itself cannot be thanked enough; nothing ever seems too much trouble … the ushers in the Verdi were attentive, but failed to stop a couple of people coming a cropper in the obstacle course that is the Verdi’s auditorium. Blame the architects, though …

On the film side; there were some real highlights, some real personal discoveries, and no real clunkers; some were of course, not as good as others; the early Kertesz films were disappointing, with only his later silent films redeeming him; but historically interesting’ I suppose. The overall programme was rather dominated by Soviet cinema; the wonderful Georgian programme I would not have missed for the world, the FEKS/Shostakovich strand was more variable, shall we say, and Fragments of an Empire, in the Canon Revisited strand, a real highlight. But quite a lot of Russia for one week. And the music, all week, was simply superb, the standard being raised every year, it seems. I’ve said it before, here last year, probably, but the golden age of silent film music? We’re living in it. Congratulations to everyone involved. Now to start reserving flights for next year …

And thank you TMX for four days of fine reporting, enabling us once again to offer a comprehensive record of the Giornate del Cinema Muto to add to the archives. It was a fine festival, a little top-heavy with USSR offering for some tastes, but without a dull day, and with many highpoints, revelations and re-evaluations. My vote for films of the festival goes to Lady of the Dugout (which I knew before), The Soldier’s Courtship (which more than lived up to expectations) and Nihon Nankyoku Tanken (Japanese polar exploration, full of revelations), but I agree that Fragments of a Empire was an extraordinary piece of work. Hearty congratulations to all who continue to put on the festival with such professionalism, dedication and invention.

‘Til next time.

Pordenone diary 2011 – day one
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

Voicing the silents

Jason Singh in rehearsal for his vocal accompaniment to Drifters (1929)

On November 6th the Cornerhouse in Manchester will be presenting an unusual form of silent film accompaniment. “Human beatboxer and sound artist” Jason Singh will be accompanying a screening of John Grierson’s silent documentary film Drifters (1929) using his voice alone – with a fair bit of processing, sampling and pre-recorded vocal sounds. The result, to judge from the video clip, sounds like it could be really effective. Drifters is certainly an imaginative choice – and with its poetic, modernistic treatment of an activity (herring fisheries) steeped in tradition, it could be an astute one.

How often have silent films been accompanied by the human voice? Not too often, I think. I’m just back from a weekend at Athy in Ireland, where the annual Shackleton Autumn School (a gathering of polar exploration enthusiasts in the town of the great Antarctic explorer’s birth) is held. I introduced a screening of the BFI’s restoration of The Great White Silence (1924), which documents Shackleton’s great rival Captain Scott’s failed attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole.

The restoration has gained great acclaim, not least in these pages, but I was none too complimentary about the music/soundscape by Simon Fisher Turner, which I thought used the film as decoration to an experiment in sound textures rather than being a proper accompaniment. Well, seeing the film again, I was wrong. The version of the score on DVD (lacking the strings that featured at the live premiere) is often spookily effective electronica, which brings out the film’s otherworldly qualities. The electronic sounds do lack variety after a while, but Turner spices things up with jolting introductions of contemporary gramophone recordings, and most powerfully a solo voice singing ‘Abide with Me’ over the still images and model shots recording the Scott party’s fatal return from the Pole. The unaccompanied voice had a powerful effect on the audience; a real coup de théâtre.

I have seen or heard silents accompanied by most things – piano, organ, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, orchestra, brass band, harp, electronica, percussion, rock band, violin, accordion, jazz band, recorders, player piano, turntables, silence – but only this once with the human voice alone. However, in the comments to a recent Bioscope post on those times in the silent era when silent film were shown without music, Maria Velez records the existence of a vocal quartet at the La Scala cinema in Glasgow during the first months of the First World War, which seems not only to have sung between films but during them as well.

Was this unique, or does anyone know of any other such examples from the period – or from the presentation of silents today? There were plenty of examples from the silent era of the use of voices behind or to the side of the screen, for singers (recorded or live) accompanying song films, of which there were a huge number in the pre-WWI period; and there were reciters of dramatic works, such as Eric Williams undertook in some British venues in the 1910s. And I’ve seen songs introduced as part of silent film screenings, such as the memorable performance of the ‘Internationale’ during Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück at Pordenone last year. Pianist Donald Sosin‘s silent film accompaniments have included songs sung by his wife Joanna Seaton. But voices or voice used as musical accompaniment in a non-song context? Anyone? Or any examples of unusual forms of musical accompaniment to silents beyond those that I’ve listed?

There’s a news piece on Jason Singh and Drifters at Wired, and further information on the Cornerhouse website.