Viewing matters

OK folks, after last week’s suggested reading list for some of the highlights among books published on silent film in 2011, here’s a selection of the best DVD and Blu-Ray releases of the year (at least in the Bioscope’s humble opinion).

  • The O’Kalem Collection 1910-1915
    This double-DVD set from the Irish Film Institute and BIFF Productions brings together eight productions made and set in Ireland by the American company Kalem (and associated producers), including The Lad from Old Ireland (1910), Rory O’ More (1911), The Colleen Bawn (1911), plus the recent documentary on what became knows as the ‘O’Kalems’, Blazing the Trail. A model package, archive-wise, scholarship-wise and entertainment-wise.
  • Hamlet & Die Filmprimadonna
    After a long, long wait, Edition Filmmuseum was finally able to bring out this year the 1920 German Hamlet, starring Asta Nielsen as Hamlet, from the German original version, with rich colour tinting and toning, and an exceptional new score from Michael Riessler. The two-DVD package includes the 1913 Nielsen film Die Filmprimadonna, documentaton on Hamlet‘s production and restoration, and an Asta Nielsen home movie compilation. Hamlet is so much more than a curiosity; an intelligent, deeply-felt and thoroughly thought-through reinterpretation of the Hamlet story.
  • Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938
    The fifth boxed set in the National Film Preservation Foundation’s series of restored film classics takes as its theme the American West. Drawn from leading archives in America and New Zealand, the collection amply lives up to its ‘treasures’ billing. Highlights incude Beatriz Michelena in Gold Rush tale Salomy Jane (1914), Clara Blow in Mantrap (1926) and real-life outlaw Al Jennings recreating his exploits in Lady of the Dug-Out (1918), a rediscovered classic if ever there was one.

  • Screening the Poor 1888-1914
    2011 has been something of a year for innovative DVD releases, and none more so than Edition Filmmuseum’s Screening the Poor, which brings together early films and magic lantern slide sets depicting issues of poverty and poor relief from the period 1888-1914. The two-DVD set not only makes an important point in showing how we should consider the films of this period in their social as much as their aesthetic contexts, but that we need also to see how film was (and remains) only one part of a wider screen culture.
  • Laila
    Flicker Alley caters for the discerning silent film enthusiast (a Criterion in miniature), and such is the trust with which it must now be held that many will have purchased a Norwegian silent film of which they knew nothing simply because they trusted the label’s judgement. They won’t have been disappointed. This 1929 tale of a lost child and native destiny has won friends wherever it has been shown, simply for telling its thrilling, romantic story in the way that only the very best of silent films can achieve.
  • Gaumont Treasures Volume 2 (1908-1916)
    Kino’s follow-up to its Gaumont Treasures volume 1 is this fabulous three-disc set (based on a six-disc French original from 2009). The set covers the work of ingenious animator Emile Cohl, proto-surrealist and adventure storyteller Jean Durand and the elegant and witty Jacques Feyder, plus some synchrononised sound films (Phonoscenes) and examples of Chronochrome, Gaumont’s own pre-WWI natural colour process. A set to savour for its variety and quality.

  • The Great White Silence
    Among the best silent film reasons for making 2011 the year to invest in a Blu-Ray player has been the British Film Institute’s release of its restored version of The Great White Silence, Herbert Ponting’s 1924 re-edit of his original 1910-11 footage of the doomed Anatarctic expedition of Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Apart from the peerless quality of the polar images, the film demonstrates, not unlike Screening the Poor, the importance of considering photographic still images alongside motion pictures, as Ponting’s work is actually at its most powerful when he no longer has films to fall back on to tell his tragic story.
  • Max Davidson Comedies
    Don’t watch this compilation alone. It is essential that you enjoy the comedy shorts of Max Davidson in company (the larger in number the better), when the shared comic effect comes over best. Davidson’s Jewish-themed comedy had been rather lost to history when he was rediscovered through film festivals and he has now had the double-DVD set treatment from Edition Filmmuseum (label of the year, without a doubt). Pass the Gravy (1928) alone is as delirously funny a film as you will find anywhere.
  • Coffret Albert Capellani
    It has been quite a year or two for early French cinema on DVD. On top of some superb releases curating Gaumont, Georges Méliès and Segundo de Chomón, this four-DVD set from Pathé presents the work of one of the leading directorial masters of the pre-war cinema period. The set has four longer films including the Capellani masterpieces Germinal (1913) and Le Chevalier de Maison Rouge (1914) and seven short films from 1906. An education in the ambition, creativity and artistic range of the early cinema.

  • Albert Capellani: Un cinema di grandeur 1905-1911
    But that’s not all we’ve had from Albert Capellani. Also in 2011 was the Cineteca di Bologna’s disc-and-booklet set on Capellani’s work 1905-1911, not overlapping with any of the content on the Pathé collection. This is one of a series of DVDs coming out of the 100-years-ago programme curated by Mariann Lewinsky for Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato. An illuminating and captivating compilation, with excellent booklet notes (in English, Italian and French).
  • Landmarks of Early Soviet Film
    Most of these choices have been multiple disc sets, but it really has been a year for curated collections bringing in films from mulitple sources, aimed at the afficionado willing to invest a little more for a definitive set likely to take some while to view and absorb in its entirety. Flicker Alley’s collection of eight silent Soviet films widens our understanding of this period (i.e. beyond Eisenstein), including Boris Barnet’s The House on Trubnaya (1928), Lev Kuleshov’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924) and Mikhail Kalatozov’s eye-popping Salt for Svanetia (1930).
  • Silent Naruse
    And finally, from Criterion’s Eclipse series, five silents from the Japanese director Mikio Naruse: Flunky, Work Hard (1931), No Blood Relation (1932), Apart from You (1933), Every-Night Dreams (1933) and Street without End (1934). These are the only films among Naruse’s twenty-four silents now known to exist, and display Naruse’s emerging interest in the marginalised role of women in Japanese society. A fine set for watching Naruse gradually discover the style and theme that would make him one of the masters of Japanese film.