Pixar goes silent


The new Pixar animation film WALL-E is released soon, and there has been much made of how the virtually dialogue-free film, about a lonely robot left alone on an earth that has been vacated by humanity, is like a silent film. Without having seen it, I can’t judge, but its debt to silents is acknowledged by director Andrew Stanton, in this interview with the Baltimore Sun:

Even for Pixar, a company that thrives on new frontiers, WALL-E is a gutsy next move. It’s the first dystopian parable that’s actually ecstatic fun. It’s also the closest Pixar has come to making a full-length silent movie.

The choice of hero is audacious: a beeping, whirring Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth class, or WALL-E. For long, unbroken, startlingly seductive stretches, we see him navigate an abandoned American city all by himself. (He does have a pet cockroach.) Thanks to him, towering ziggurats made of trash compacted into cubes have sprouted up among malls and skyscrapers.

WALL-E‘s director, Andrew Stanton says he didn’t let the silence of these sections stymie him.

To Stanton, “WALL-E is not a silent movie that just happens to have sound, it’s a regular movie that just happens to use unconventional dialogue. My methodology, from the script on, was no different than it was approaching any ‘regular’ movie. It’s like I was dealing with a hero who spoke French all the time.”

Squat and scrappy, with binocular-like eyes that are as warm and eloquent as Bambi’s, WALL-E looks like a cross between R2D2 and a Cubist portrait of a geek. He’s the sole and surprisingly spirited survivor of a mammoth cleanup operation.

After Earth grew clogged with trash, the all-consuming Buy N Large corporation sent the human population into outer space and left behind a mechanical janitorial super-service to make the globe inhabitable once again. But these plans went awry (if they ever were sincere at all), and the one trash-compactor left is WALL-E, who has developed curiosity, survival skills and surprising wells of emotion – and expresses them with little more than a crook of his articulated elbows or a shift of his bifurcated head.

Stanton’s love for silent movies gave him confidence. “You just want to make sure the visuals and the acting carry as much information as possible because people’s senses are going to be a little more focused on them without dialogue.”

Stanton wrote the script with Jim Reardon, an old friend and college classmate who directed 35 episodes of The Simpsons.

“We put dialogue in brackets: We knew we would be swapping it out with something else to convey it. … so I wrote what I expected them to ‘say.’ ”

The influence of silent films on Pixar has been pronounced from the beginning. When I interviewed Stanton 13 years ago at Pixar’s old Point Richmond headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area (the company has since moved to nearby Emeryville), he told me, “Buster Keaton is God.”

Despite Stanton’s devotion to Keaton, Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp may be the silent clown who hovers over the plucky and poignant WALL-E. Stanton agrees that in addition to “hundreds of other films,” WALL-E has a touch of Chaplin’s Modern Times: in content, as “an indirect comment on one possibility of the automation of humanity and losing your soul.” And in style, too – Modern Times (1936) was a silent made in the sound era, with a music track, sound effects, gibberish and only a smattering of English.

And just as Modern Times, despite its mordant view of modern industry, became Chaplin’s cheeriest film because of the Tramp’s romance with “a gamin” (Paulette Goddard), WALL-E became Pixar’s most piquant and satisfying film because of WALL-E’s courtship of EVE, the svelte Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator sent from the Buy N Large mother ship to see if plants have started growing again on Earth.

EVE helped Stanton locate the core of the movie and also simply added to the pantomimed fun: “I already had one ‘person” who spoke a different language than I did, and now he’d fall in love with someone of a different nationality who spoke another language.”

Read the rest of the article here. And there’s a whole raft of WALL-E promo videos on a YouTube channel if you want to test further the notion of modern silents.

Early anime discovered

Chibisuke Monogatari

Issun-boshi: Chibisuke Monogatari (Tiny Chibisuke’s Big Adventure) (1935) © Digital Meme

The National Film Center, Toyko, has announced the discovery of two anime films from the silent era. Given the fact that less than 4% of Japanese films made before 1945 still exist, any such discovery, as brief as these titles are, is heartening news.

Anime might be thought of as a modern phenomenon, but the history of Japanese film animation stretches back to the early silent era. Soon after American and European animation films were first seen in Japan, around 1914, Japanese filmmakers were imitating them and coming up with their own distinctive native style.

The two films that have been uncovered (they were found in good condition in an Osaka antique store) are Junichi Kouichi’s Nakamura Katana (1917), a two-minute tale of a samurai tricked into buying a dull-edged sword; and Seitaro Kitayama’s Urashima Taro (1918), based on a folk tale in which a fisherman is transported to a fantastic underwater world on the back of a turtle.

There’s a little more information in a Reuter’s report, but no images or clips just yet.

If you are keen to see what silent anime looks like, the enterprising Japanese publisher Digital Meme sells a four-DVD box set, Japanese Anime Classic Collection, which features examples from 1928 onwards, some with benshi narration (the Japanese actor/presenters who explained the stories of films to audiences and who enjoyed stardom in their own right). Digital Meme retails a number of Japanese silents on DVD with benshi accompaniment as a special feature, and I’ll put together a post some time soon about these and the world of the benshi.

The world’s oldest movie

Burnt City’s Wild Goat

The Wild Goat of Burnt City, from http://www.cais-soas.com

Those of us steeped in early film know all about the pre-history of cinema, with the optical toys, Zoetropes, Phenakistiscopes and so on of the nineteenth century and a history of screen practice going back to the seventeenth century and the emergence of the magic lantern. And many have argued that the history can go back as far as you like, some even asserting that cave paintings demonstrate a proto-cinematic imagination.

But here we have a candidate for the world’s oldest piece of animation, even the world’s oldest movie – an ‘animation’ from 2,600 B.C. In the 1970s an Italian archaeological team uncovered a pot in the 5,200-year-old Burnt City of ancient Iran. It was Iranian archaeologist Dr Mansur Sadjadi, who discovered that the five images on the pot, showing a wild goat leaping up to eat the leaves of a tree, formed a related series. Now a documentary film has been made by Mohsen Ramezani which animates the sequence.

Wild Goat

The original five images of the wild goat, from http://www.cais-soas.com

Of course, the ancient Iranians did not invent the animated GIF, and in any case there has been some jiggery-pokery to make the animation succeed (there are more than five images to the animated sequence, the images have been cleaned up, and the background trees are unfeasibly rocksteady). So it’s an animation of an animation. Nevertheless, it’s delightful to see, and does make you think that the wish to capture life in art has always included a need to suggest motion, so that cinematic urge has always been there, in some form. It’s a fundamental human need. Now, were any other such pots made, and where are they?

Find out more about the pot and film from the Cultural Heritage, Tourism and Handicrafts Organization site. Acknowledgment also to the commendable Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, where I found the story.

Emile Cohl

Emile Cohl

Emile Cohl

1895, the journal of l’Association française de recherche sur l’histoire du cinéma (AFRHC), has published a special issue on the work of Emile Cohl (1857-1938), the brilliant French graphic artist and pioneer of the animation film.

Cohl (born Emile Eugène Jean Louis Courtet) first established himself as a caricaturist, cartoonist and writer in the 1880s/90s. In 1908 he joined the Gaumont film company, originally as a writer. He soon graduated to directing comedy, chase and féerie (magical films in the style of Georges Méliès) films, but then moved to making animation films, a kind of film only just starting to be created, largely through the example in America of J. Stuart Blackton, whose Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) and Haunted Hotel (1907) opened up a whole new world of cinematic possibility.

Cohl worked with line drawings, cut-outs, puppets and other media. He also took the idea of animation one step further by cresting a character, Fantoche. His first animated film, the delightful stick figure Fantasmagorie (1908), is held to be the first fully animated film, employing 700 drawings on sheets of paper, each photographed separately. Cohl developed a distinctive personal style of animation, where a figure would metamorphose into some unexpected different image, taunting notions of reality and logical sequence.



Cohl made over 250 films between 1908 and 1923, working for Gaumont, Éclair (including a spell in America), Pathé and others. Thirty-seven (some of uncertain attribution) survive in film archives, and Fantasmagorie is available on Lobster Films’ Saved from the Flames DVD. There is an elegantly designed website (in French), www.emilecohl.com. He is also the subject of an exceptional biography by Donald Crafton, Emile Cohl, Caricature, and Film (1990) which I warmly recommend, not only for being a thorough, readable and richly illustrated account of his life and works, but for all the context it provides for French cultural life, graphic art, and the early film industry.

The special issue of 1895 is in French, though on the 1895 website there are abstracts in English. A couple of the pieces are available to read in full (in French). There is a family history from Pierre Courtet-Cohl, an articles not just on his animated films but on his work in caricature, photography and cartoon strips.

A proper DVD anthology of Cohl’s work would be seem to be more than overdue. Beware of some films on YouTube credited to Cohl which are not his work – Fantasmagorie (alas, ripped from the DVD release) and Le Rêve D’un Garçon De Café (aka Le songe du garçon de café or The Hasher’s Delirium, available only as a brief extract) are his; The Automatic Moving Company (confused with Cohl’s Le Mobilie fidèle) and Le Ratelier are not.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit

Walt Disney is in the process of releasing a series of Treasures DVDs presenting assorted gems from its past. The latest in the series features Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald has been rather left out of Disney mythology, largely because Disney lost hold of the rights. Oswald was Disney’s all-animation cartoon series, preceded by the live action and animation mix of Alice in Cartoonland, but itself preceding the Mouse. The animation is basic by the standards that Disney would introduce in the 1930s, but is graced with enough inventive touches and decent gags to please more than just the animation archaeologist.

Twenty-six Oswald titles were produced by Disney over 1927-1928, with animation by Ub Iwerks, Friz Freleng, Rudolf Ising and others. But Disney lost the rights to the character in a battle with his distributor, Winkler Productions, and producer Charles Mintz continued with the series out of the silent and into the sound era, with many of Disney’s animators abandoning him and joining Mintz. After further business shenanignas, the series continued as Walter Lantz productions, distributed by Universal, up to 1938.

Years passed, and we find ourselves in 2006. After years of trying, Disney recovered the rights to the original twenty-six, Disney-produced Oswalds, and began a process of tracking down the best possible materials from archives around the world. Thirteen of the series now appear on Walt Disney Treasures – The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a two-DVD set released in America. The titles are:

Oh, Teacher (1927)
Great Guns (1927)
The Mechanical Cow (1927)
All Wet (1927)
Oh What a Knight (1928)
Sky Scrappers (1928)
Trolley Troubles (1927)
The Fox Chase (1928)
Bright Lights (1928)
Tall Timber (1928)
Rival Romeos (1928)
Ozzie of the Mounted (1928)
The Ocean Hop (1927)

Additional titles on the DVD are three Alice comedies (Alice Gets Stung, Alice In The Wooley West, Alice’s Balloon Race), the post-Oswald Disney classics Skeleton Dance (1928), Steamboat Willie (1929) and Plane Crazy (1928), and Leslie Iwerks’ (Ub’s granddaughter) 1999 documentary, The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story. Robert Israel provides an organ music score, and there is audio commentary as well.

Find out more about Oswald from the Toonpedia site, and read the Disney side of events from a February 2006 press release. And get the Walter Lantz side of the history from the Walter Lantz Cartune Encyclopedia.

Pordenone diary – day five

Bible lands frame

One of the ‘Bible Lands’ films discovered by Lobster Films, from http://www.cinetecadelfriuli.org/gcm

In March of this year, someone spotted a small can of film in an antique shop window. It had the words ‘Collection ELGE’ on the can, indicating a Gaumont film (from the letters L.G. for Léon Gaumont). The discovery came to the attention of film historian Sabine Lenk, who in turn alerted Lobster Films of Paris, specialists in early film and inspired discoverers of the extraordinary. What lay within the antique shop, however, hinted at being their most exceptional discovery yet. There were ninety-three cans in the shop, the owner apologising that they were only negatives (!). They were Edison-perforation 35mm, some in ELGE cans, some in Lumière cans, with some shrinkage but little decomposition. And they appeared to date from 1897.

Films very rarely turn up these days from the 1890s, and when they do they tend to be in ones and twos. For ninety-three to emerge in one go is practically unprecedented. And there there was their subject matter. Handwritten titles on the opening frames indicated films taken in Nazareth and Bethlehem, and dramatised scenes of the life of Christ. Before a single film had been printed or viewed, it was clear that here was a truly major discovery.

Seven months on, and amazingly the collection was ready for exhibition at Pordenone. Inevitably enough, this being a collection of early, non-fiction films, the Verdi was less than full for this historic premiere. So there were folks who preferred their cappuccino to witnessing the most remarkable discovery of the festival, but more fool them. The rest of us heard an introduction from Serge Blomberg of Lobster, who said that the rolls of film bore number 1 to 203, with many missing. The films we were to see came from Palestine and Egypt. Other titles showing scenes in Turkey would be shown at a later date.

Bible lands frame

One of the ‘Bible Lands’ films discovered by Lobster Films, showing a funfair with swings, from http://www.cinetecadelfriuli.org/gcm

And so to the films. They were one-minute or so each in length, actualities of life in the Bible lands (as Lobster have labelled the films), very much in the Lumière style. Indeed, the films showed the sort of studied composition and coherent action encompassed within the frame and completed within the film’s duration that characterises Lumière productions. Some had two shots, some featured camera movement. They were all in superb condition. We saw camel drivers, a snake charmer (whose cobras tried to escape into nearby bushes and were hauled back, not best pleased), children dancing in front of the ruins at Luxor, street vendors in Cairo, an Arab street funeral procession, a funfair with swings pulled by ropes and a mini ‘big’ wheel, women drummers, men dancing, men and women making bricks, women preparing food, a panning shot of the Kedron Valley, women sowing seeds on horse-drawn ‘carts’ (they looked like sleds) outside Nazareth, and many more such scenes. Perhaps most impressive were the two or three films showing the shadouf being operated, the human-powered (usually child-powered) irrigation system with a bucket and a counterweighted arm. These were scenes that had gone on from centuries, millennia even, and here was the motion picture capturing them – in 1897 (or thereabouts), when in truth they could have been scenes from any time.

Following the actualities, we had the dramatic films. There were scenes from two lives of Christ – or at least, filmed in different locations. The first was clearly filmed in Palestine, presumably in Nazareth and Bethlehem themselves. These were brief scenes from the birth and childhood of Christ, extraordinarily featuring an Arab (Christianised?) Joseph and Mary. The Adoration of the Shepherds and then the Magi (not much difference between the two) took place by some steps, with a rough authenticity unlike any Nativity film you ever saw. Mary wore a large white shawl that covered much of her face. We saw further scenes with this couple, Mary on a donkey, the rest on the flight to Egypt, Mary breastfeeding her child, the toddler Jesus’s first steps (not a scene I remember from the Bible).

And then the backgrounds changed. The scenery became wooded, without buildings, and Mary, Joseph and Jesus (a young girl) were now played by white performers, with attitudes and iconography far closer to the conventional. These scenes appear to have been filmed in France, but they continued to surprise. We had an Annunciation scene with an angel Gabriel suddenly appearing (a trick effect unlikely to be as early as 1897), Joseph working at his carpentry, someone dropping a pot which the child Jesus then magically mended, Joseph rowing Mary and Jesus across a river, young girls dressed as angels joining Mary and Jesus. Most astonishing was the film where the child Jesus carried a cross, placed it upon the ground, and then lay down upon it. There is some precedent for this sort of intimation of the future on the part of the child Jesus in the Western art tradition, but it was still a mind-boggling feat of the imagination.

Bible lands frame

One of the ‘Bible Lands’ films discovered by Lobster Films, from http://www.cinetecadelfriuli.org/gcm

So who made these films, and who saw them? Although there is not certain evidence as yet, the most likely candidate is Albert Kirchner, also known as Léar. Kirchner was a French photographer and likely producer of risqué postcards, who is first recorded as having made a striptease film, Le Coucher de la Marie, with Eugène Pirou in 1896. Unblushingly moving from pornography to religion, Kirchner teamed up with a Catholic priest and educationalist, Father Bazile, to make short comedy films. In Spring 1897 he set off with one Father Bailly to film in Egypt and Palestine, returning to France to film a twelve-scene Life of Christ with Michel Coissac (a future film historian who wrote about this episode). This was the first-ever Life of Christ to be filmed, and it enjoyed huge popularity – the Reverend Thomas Dixon, author of The Clansman on which D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation would be based, exhibited it in America in 1898 – and was much imitated. Kirchner’s films were bought up by Gaumont, and some can be found listed in Gaumont catalogues. He then disappears from the historical record, but he may have died soon afterwards.

There was much excited discussion among the early film enthusiasts after the screening (there aren’t many of us who get wildly enthused by 1890s films, but we’re a dedicated breed). It seems unlikely that all the films date from 1897, given some of the sophisticated techniques on view at times, and we may have seen films produced by different hands. And so many questions. Why the two lives of Christ? Were the ‘authentic’ scenes shown in France, rejected by audiences, and scenes more in keeping with Western taste shot in their place? Or were the two lives really one and meant to be shown together, despite the changes in performers and costumes? Were the actuality scenes meant to be integrated with the dramatised scenes? We know that the films – assuming they are Kirchner’s – were popular, but what exactly did audiences see? It is only a few months since this extraordinary collection was discovered, and there is still a huge amount to be discovered. What is certain is that a gap in the history books needs to be filled, and we have a collection of views of life in Palestine and Egypt at the end of the nineteenth century which will not only excite the historians but enrich generations to come.

[Update (October 2008: The films are now known to have been made by the Abbés Mulsant and Chevalier in 1904. See Back to the Bible Lands post]

There were other films in the day, which I’ll touch on briefly. Two delightful Starewitch animations, Les Grenouilles Qui Demandent Un Roi (1922) caught the stern spirit of Aesop and La Fontaine very well, with fine comic glosses on the tale of the frogs who ask an exasperated God for a new king, eventually getting a stork which eats them all. La Voix du Rossignol (1923) was charming in its meticulously observed depiction of bird life. Der Kampf der Tertia (1929) was a German’s children’s feature film, directed by Max Mack and with beautfilly composed coastal scenes, about a group of schoolchildren who prevent a cull of cats in a neighbouring town being organised by Max Schreck (of Nosferatu fame). Happy, inconsequential stuff, though you couldn’t help but wonder what would be the fate of those bright-eyed youngsters ten years thence. All at Sea (1933), shown in the evening, was a home movie shot by Alistair Cooke (the future broadcaster) of a yachting trip he spent with Charlie Chaplin and an impossibly beautiful Paulette Goddard. Chaplin is seen impersonating Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo and the Prince of Wales (rather good), as well as going through a Napoleon routine. We also saw unpleasant details of a shark being caught, and the usual dull shots of ships in the distance which invariably fail enliven the home movies of rich or humble.



And so farewell to Pordenone for 2007. I left on the Thursday morning, and so missed the last three days, including the Corrick Collection of early films recently discovered in Australia, my favourite René Clair film, Un Chapeau de Paille d’Italie (An Italian Straw Hat) (1927), and the late D.W. Griffith film that I most admire, Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924). Ah well. If you want to find out more about the films on show at this year’s Giornate, the full catalogue is downloadable as a PDF (2.9MB), with marvellous detail, expertly edited as always by Cathy Surowiec. If you were at Pordenone and saw the films I saw and would like to make comments – or if you saw films I didn’t see and would like to tell us about them – please do so. And if you’ve never been to the Pordenone Silent Film Festival and these posts have made you think that perhaps you ought to one day – well, you’re right.

Pordenone diary – day three

Queue outside the Verdi

Queue outside the Teatro Verdi

It was during the Pordenone festival that Peter Greenaway announced the death of cinema. He wasn’t at the festival himself, but rather in Korea at the Pusan International Film Festival, giving a masterclass, but his words went round the world, as words will these days. Now, the unfortunate demise of cinema is commonly reported – Pordenone stalwart Paolo Cherchi Usai has written a book on the subject – and still the corpse keeps dancing around on our many and various screens, but Greenaway had an interesting specific point to make:

Cinema’s death date was in 1983, when the remote control was introduced to the living room … Bill Viola is worth ten Martin Scorseses. Scorsese is old-fashioned and is making the same films that D.W. Griffith was making early last century … Every medium has to be redeveloped, otherwise we would still be looking at cave paintings … My desire to tell you stories is very strong but it’s difficult because I am looking for cinema that is non-narrative.

Well, aside from the irony that Scorcese wrote the foreword to Cherchi Usai’s book (which admittedly is on the preservation of cinema rather than the present and future reception of cinema), is he still making films like Griffith, and what have we been doing these past few years at Pordenone sitting through the entire works of Griffith, the arch-master of narrative cinema? And why aren’t the art works of Bill Viola on show at this silent film festival?

Pordenone serves both an academic-historical and a sentimental function. It displays the films of the first thirty years or so of cinema with full archival and scholarly rigour – intelligently selected titles presented as products of national, artistic or thematic output, with credits, sources, informative writing, all backed up with the best-available prints shown in the best-possible conditions. It also caters to the nostalgic, with conventional, albeit brilliantly played and usually improvised, music rich in themes from the early twentieth century, and an abiding fondness for the stars of that era. On day three (October 8th), for instance, we were treated to a visit from Jean Darling, one-time star of the ‘Our Gang’ shorts, and the day before we spoke on the phone to Hungarian actress and singer Márta Eggerth to thank her for the film of her that we had just seen. Some acknowledgment of modern silents is made at Pordenone, such as the ingenious pastiches of the Wisconsin Bioscope, but Bill Viola would look sadly out of place. This is a festival which looks back – to the roots of cinema, and to a lost past.

And, however scholarly, this is an audience that likes its stories. Non-fiction does begrudgingly receive its due at Pordenone, but many choose the opportunity of such screenings to visit the restaurants and cafés. Narrative cinema reigns supreme, and much of the academic enquiry seems in any case rooted in the ways in which silent cinema discovered how to tell a story. It’s a fundamental need. Martin Scorcese is still making films in the way D.W. Griffith made them, because the audience still wants to identify people, their personalities, their predicaments, and what happens to them under crisis. I suspect that he would be rather flattered by Peter Greenaway’s comparison of him with D.W. Griffith. But I also suspect that Greenaway would be dismayed by Pordenone’s faith in a cinema held in amber.

D.W. Griffith

D.W. Griffith

But enough of such speculation – what of the immediate reality of sitting through another Griffith turkey, One Exciting Night (1922)? Word went round that this unfamiliar title was even worse than Dream Street, and at 136 mins it was going to be a grim ordeal. The film is a murder mystery set in an old dark house – a theme that is all too familiar now, but was fresh then. Griffith had tried to secure the rights to The Bat, a hugely popular play about a mysterious house with money hidden in it and many suspicious characters after it. Unable to afford the rights, Griffith simply rewote the story himself (using the pseudonym Irene Sinclair). The plot concerns an inheritance, an orphan (Carol Dempster), bootleggers’ loot, and a host of characters in the obligatory multi-roomed house, one of whom is a murderer. Title cards warn us of the mysteries that are to follow and how we should not reveal the identity of the murderer to those who might want to see the film after us. However, the identity of the murderer is glaringly obvious from the start, the plot is incomprehensible, and the handling of it inept. Griffith simply could not apply the necessary techniques for the mystery genre, filming in a flat, obvious style, failing to bring any clarity to a complex, incoherent plot, and leaving the audience both bored and bewildered.

And yet, and yet… Three quarters of the way through the film changes. The plot becomes so incoherent, the rushing between rooms of the increasingly panicky characters so manic, that all narrative coherence disappears and a kind of insane magnificence takes over. It’s at this point that a hurricane is introduced into the proceedings. There’s nothing to announce it – it has just built up in the background, and suddenly the characters are all outside and at the mercy of the wild elements. The expensive hurricane sequence was added on as an afterthought (clearly hoping to recreate the excitement of the final scenes of Way Down East), and has been much criticised as an illogical irrelevance. But to me it seemed to have a mad logic to it, and the pianist John Sweeney (on top form throughout the festival) certainly responded with gusto. One Exciting Night is a bad film by any conventional standard, but the way in which it tries to hold up a narrative, gives up, then welcomes in chaos, might have found it some favour with Peter Greenaway after all. Even Carol Dempster is not that bad. What is dreadful is more eye-rolling blackface ‘comedy’ from Porter Strong, which critics at the time shamefully found among the film’s best features.

OK, so what else did we have on day three? More of Starewitch’s stop-motion animations, from his Russian period: Strekoza i Muravei (The Grasshopper and the Ant) (1911) and Veselye Stsenki iz Zhizni Zhivotnykh (Amusing Scenes from the Life of Insects) (1912); and from his French period: L’Épouvantail (1921) and Le Mariage de Babylas (1921). L’Épouvantail mixes live action (Starewitch himself as a yokel, plus his daughter Nina) with puppet animation in a very effective mixture of film trickery and slapstick, while Le Mariage de Babylas is a delightful tale of a spoiled wedding among a child’s toys, which shows Starewitch’s agreeable lack of sentimentality – he is the Roald Dahl of animators, showing meanness and mischievousness as well as wide-eyed wonder in his childhood tales.


The Teatro Verdi and the Posta café, Pordenone

The main place for conversations and future plans is the Posta café, immediately across the street from the Verdi, and here I spent some time discusing with others the ongoing Women and Film History International project, co-ordinated by Jane Gaines, which is investigating women film pioneers from the silent era worldwide, in an ambitious programme of investigation and publication. The aim is not only to bring some unfamiliar names to the fore, but to challenge received ideas about the creative filmmaking process. Hopefully some major screen retrospectives will follow as well, and that we keep up this process of continually reinvestigating film history.

Georges Melies

Georges Méliès, from http://www.victorian-cinema.net

I kept ducking out of the German feature films to engage in such chats, alas, but it just isn’t possible to see everything and stay sane. I ducked out of Jean Darling and the ‘Our Gang’ shorts for reasons of taste, but it was back to the Verdi for four newly discovered Georges Méliès titles. How wonderful it is that new Méliès titles keep turning up, and that Pordenone always makes a special presentation of them. This year, the Filmoteca de Catalunya delighted us with Évocation Spirite (1899), La Pyramide de Triboulet (1899), L’Artiste et le Mannequin (1900) and especially Éruption Volcanique à la Martinique (1902), a spectactular recreation of the eruption of Mount Pelée and the destruction of St Pierre on 8 May 1902 with vivid hand-coloured explosions. It’s high time we had an up-to-date list of extant Georges Méliès films published.

I saw about fifteen minutes of the Soviet-Armenian comedy feature Shor I Shorshor (1926). Fascinating as its peasant comedy might have been, and intriguing as it was that such a picture of ‘backward’ rural lifestyles should be issued by a Soviet studio, I do object to being made witness to a comic routine which involved a live chicken being pulled apart by our two heroes. Animals overall had a hard time of it at the Giornate. I walked out.

The day for me was rounded off in happy style by René Clair’s Paris Qui Dort (1923-25), which I’d not seen before. It’s an odd film really – Paris is frozen by a mysterious ray, and only a few characters who were in a plane plus a man who lives at the top of the Eiffel Tower remain active because they were above the ray when it shot out. There is ample opportunity for satire, when the comic group discover that normal social rules no longer apply, but little is done with the concept. Instead it is the lightness of spirit which carries the film. It was surprising however to see such clunking continuity errors – several people could be seen walking around in the supposedly sleep-bound streets of Paris. Lastly we had a generally very funny Louis Feuillade comedy, Séraphin ou les Jambes Nués (1921), starring Georges Biscot. We cannot now of course make films about the social embarassment caused by someone losing his trousers, for today no one would blink an eye at Séraphin’s dilemma. Happily, we can still laugh at such films, because we understand the time and place. Imaginative sympathy – that’s what Pordenone audiences do best.

Screen heritage survey

Magic lantern slide from National Media Museum

Magic lantern slide from the National Media Museum, http://www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk

A online survey was launched today, to uncover collections in the UK with moving image and screen-related artefacts. It is organised by a body called the Screen Heritage Network (of which the organisation I work for, the British Universities Film & Video Council, is a member). The survey is open to any UK collection with artefacts relating to the moving image and screen-related media which may be accessible to the public or researchers. There are ten categories of artefact being sought:

1. Film production equipment
2. Television and video equipment
3. Animation and special effects
4. Sound
5. Sets and costumes
6. Cinema and projection
7. Magic lanterns, slide projectors and viewers
8. Toys and games
9. Installations
10. Documentation

The information gathered will be used to create the first-ever online database of moving image and screen-related objects in UK collections.

Behind this activity lies a definition of ‘screen heritage’ which goes beyond moving picture to encompass the machinery that produces and exhibits them, the culture that supports them, and a notion of ‘screen’ that extends beyond cinema and television back to magic lanterns and forward to video games, consoles and the handheld technologies of today.

So the survey, in looking at artefacts, is concentrating on just a part of this vision of what ‘screen heritage’ comprises. It’s all most appropriate to the study of silent cinema, and where silent cinema fits in within the broader scheme of things. Do take a look at the project site, and if you know of a museum or other heritage organisation within the UK that ought to be taking part, and which we may have missed, let us know.

The Cameraman’s Revenge

I’ve written before of those points where my interests in silents and modern jazz/avant garde music match. One particular hero is the American guitarist Gary Lucas, whose extraordinary accompaniment to a scene from Der Golem has already appeared on The Bioscope.

I’ve just found on his website another silent film with his accompaniment. He had a touring show, Sounds of the Surreal, which presents his live accompaniment to Rene Clair’s Entr’acte (1924), Fernand Leger’s Ballet Mecanique (1924), and Ladislaw Starewicz’s The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), which available as a QuickTime file on his site.

The Cameraman’s Revenge

The Cameraman’s Revenge, from http://www.garylucas.com

Ladislaw Starewicz (1882-1965) is one of cinema’s true originals. His passion was entomology. He was taken on by the Russian company Khanzhonkov as a designer, and turned to directing model animation in 1912. His extraordinary idea was to build on his hobby by animating insects with stop-motion photography, in parodies of human activity. The Cameraman’s Revenge (or Mest’ kinematografičeskogo operatora) is his best-known film from this period, where a bettle and a grasshopper both pursue a dragonfly dancer, and the envious grasshopper captures evidence of a romantic tryst between the pair on his motion picture camera. It is one of the damnednest things you ever saw.

He made several other such stop-motion and animated films, including The Ant and the Grasshopper, Insects’ Aviation Week and Voyage to the Moon. In the 1920 Starewicz moved to France, where he won increased fame for animated films such as La voix du rossignol (1923), Amour noir et amour blanc (1928) and the feature-length Le roman de Renard (1928-39), all produced with dogged independence.

To be honest, the Gary Lucas score, with National steel guitar, doesn’t connect much with the action, and the version online is incomplete, missing the conclusion where the grasshopper’s film is shown. Nevertheless, it’s worth checking out just for being so odd, and selections of Starewicz’s films happily are available on DVD.

American Memory

Among the very best resources on the web is the Library of Congress’ American Memory site. The purpose of American memory is to provide “free and open access through the Internet to written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience”. Its Motion Pictures section is a marvellous example of this, offering users access to a wide range of predominantly early cinema subjects, all available for viewing and downloading, in MPEG, QuickTime and RealMedia formats.

Each collection is usefully contextualised and indexed, and there are impeccable cataloguing records. The collections with silent film material (both fiction and non-fiction, but chiefly the latter) are:

Needless to say, this is all non-copyright material, one of the consequences of which being that eBay is full of DVDs of early film materials which are simply repackaged downloads from this site.