The second longest film in the world

Well here’s something I didn’t know before – the world’s second-longest film is a silent film. Indeed, until it was beaten by the compellingly-titled Modern Times Forever (Stora Enso Building, Helsinki) only this year, which weighs in at a daunting 240 hours, Cinématon by the French experimental filmmaker Gérard Courant was the longest film in the world, at 156 hours, or six days twelve hours.

Courant has been making the film for thirty-three years. He started making it in 1978 and is still being added to, so he could yet catch up once more with his rival. It’s not a narrative film, indeed it’s not really a single film but rather a series of unedited silent portraits (cinématons) of people, each of which is three minutes and 25 seconds long, shot on Super 8 film. To date there are 2,350 of them. Courant says he only intended to shoot 100 but the idea was so popular that he just kept on going.

The subjects range from the famous to the unknown. Included among the former are Jean-Luc Godard, Sam Fuller, Maurice Pialat, Wim Wnders, Sandrine Bonnaire, Terry Gilliam, Joseph Losey and Roberto Benigni. A number are available to view on Courant’s website, while others (appaently with the filmmaker’s blessing), appear on YouTube. They are silent films, and Courant has said he prefers silent movies “because of their power to convey strong emotions and connect with the audiences”. Whether you connect in an emotionally strong way with the film of Godard below, for example, may be open to question. It is typical of the series, where the subject, shown in close-up, simply sits before the camera. Many subject look self-conscious, uncertain of what to do, of how to fill the time.

Jean-Luc Godard, Cinématon #106, filmed 22 February 1981

The ‘film’ has been screened in its entirety on a number of occasions, each time getting longer of course, most recently at the Microscope Gallery, New York in 2010, and sequences are currently being featured at the Gulf Film Festival.

French critic Jacques Kermabon wrote this about the series in 1983:

Le Cinématon renoue avec la vocation originelle du cinématographe, émerveillé par la reproduction du mouvement et la possibilité de conserver la trace d’une existence. L’émotion naît de découvrir au cinéma la palpitation d’un corps: respiration, clignements d’yeux, hochements de tête. Tout est enregistré sans possibilité de reprise : les gestes manqués, les maladresses, les hésitations … Tout un corpus gestuel, honni du cinéma traditionnel, est ainsi exhibé, rendant caduque la notion de réalisme dans le cinéma de fiction. La pellicule a impressionné le souvenir de 3 minutes 20 d’existence. Elle restitue dans sa pesanteur, le temps qui est passé un jour. « La mort au travail », disait Cocteau du cinéma.

The original vocation of cinema? Well there is something of the Lumières about the exercise – single shot films, each of identical length, arranged in series, records of seeming plain reality that become anything but because the camera was there. And yet it is the negation of cinema, because fundamentally cinema takes you somewhere (a characteristic of every Lumière film) while Cinématon takes you nowhere. Whether you spent three minutes 25 seconds watching it or six-and-a-half days would probably make no difference. But cinema overall would be the poorer without such grandes folie.

There is to be a retrospective of Courant’s work at La Cinémathèque de Bourgogne in October or November of this year, and the Cinémathèque’s website is currently screening one cinématon per week.

Pen and pictures no. 9 – The cinema novel

Images from the 1930 stage production of Jules Romains’ Donogoo Tonka ou Les Miracles de la science: conte cinématographique (sorry about the music)

Our series on the relationship between literature and silent film has so far mostly taken the biographical approach, looking at the particular experiences of Thomas Hardy, J.M. Barrie, Evelyn Waugh, John Buchan, Bernard Shaw, Leo Tolstoy and Arthur Conan Doyle. But for post number nine we’re taking a thematic angle on things and looking at the cinema novel.

The cinema novel does not mean novelisations (which began in the silent era and may well be the subject of another post). Rather I mean a phenomenon identified by the American cultural critic Gilbert Seldes in his 1924 book, The Seven Lively Arts. Seldes wrote:

[I]t is interesting to note that the cinema influence in literature in France is almost exactly opposite to what it is here [in America]. There it seems to make for brevity, hardness, clarity, brilliance. You will find it in the extraordinary stories of Paul Morand and Louis Aragon; and you will find in neither of these those characteristic sloppinesses which American authors are beginning to blame on the movies. If they would take the trouble of studying the pictures, instead of trying to make money out of them, and discover the elements in the cinema technique which are capable of making their own work fruitful, we might have better novels, and we certainly would have a few less bad pictures.

Two Frenchmen have, at the same time, used the scenario as a method of fiction, and each of them has written a highly ironic piece which is capable of being transferred to the film, but which reads sufficiently well to be considered as an end in itself.

Seldes was excited by what looked like an emerging trend – writers of the modernist school seeing exciting possibilities in transferring the dynamism and visual quality of cinema to literary works. There were plenty among the modernist, Futurists, Cubists and other sorts of ists whose imaginations had been fired by cinema (especially Chaplin, Keystone and serial films). Some, such as the Futurist Anton Giulio Bragaglia managed to put their ideas into film; others, like Apollinaire, Kandinsky and Schoenberg theorised about the possibilities of combining their art forms (poetry, painting, music) with film.

None was more enthused than the first of Seldes’ examples, Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961). Cendrars was a poet, journalist, novelist and creative autobiographer (much of what he wrote about his personal history needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt). He was an arch modernist, as experimental in his life as he was in his works. Like many French intellectuals of the period, he was excited by cinema’s possibilities as a new and universal language, but unlike most he was able to get involved in production itself. He served as an all-round production assistant on Abel Gance’s J’Accuse (1919), appearing briefly in the film as an actor, and was assistant director on Gance’s La roue (1923), for which Cendrars directed the innovative (and extant) promo film Autour de la roue. He went on to write an impressionistic theoretical text, L’ABC du cinéma (1926), which expounded his ideas on the ways in which cinema’s multifariousness captured the very essence of modern life. His 1925 novel of the American west, L’or, attracted interest in Hollywood, with Sergei Eisenstein trying to get Paramount to produce it during his American phase. Eventually James Cruze directed it as Sutter’s Gold in 1936 while Luis Trenker made an unofficial adpatation, Der Kaiser von Kalifornien, in Germany the same year. Cendrars also wrote a quirky, perversely observant account of two weeks in Hollywood, Hollywood: La Meque du cinéma (1936).

What Seldes highlighted, however, were two works, La Fin du monde (1919) and La Perle fiévreuse (1921), in which Cendrars brought the cinema into his writing. La Fin du Monde, filmée par l’Ange N.-D. [The End of the World, filmed by the Angel of Notre-Dame] was conceived of as a film-novel and is ostenibly organised as a film scenario. It tells of God as a ruthless businessman, for whom business has been good in the war because it has yielded up so many souls. God travels to Mars, visits all manner of plagues upon earth and kills off mankind all in the name of business, only for the story to rewind like a reel of film back to the beginning to reveal human life starting again, only this time God is bankrupt.

It is not your average novel, and it did not look like one. Published by Éditions de la Sirène, which specialised in innovative designs, the book was illustrated with abstract designs and colourful lettering by the artist Fernard Léger (see example right), who also designed the typography. Léger would of course go on to turn filmmaker with Ballet mécanique in 1924. There is no English translation available, but the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (the Dutch national library) provides a background history in English and what’s more a multimedia presentation on the book (in Dutch, French or English) which outlines the narrative, illustrated with many of the original images.

Cendrars next wrote La Perle fiévreuse [The Feverish Pearl] in 1921, a work with a curious history. In his imaginative autobiography, The Astonished Man, he says that he was responsible for an Italian film which he calls La Vénus noire,

starring Dourga, the Hindu dancer from the Opéra Comique, and using all the animals from the zoological gardens.

He says that he fell victim to a financial scandal which led to the collapse of the Italian film industry, personally losing 1,250,000 francs and ruining any opportunities the film might have had. Long thought of as a piece of Cendrars fantasy, the late Italian film historian Vitorio Martinelli, discovered that the film was indeed made and reviewed, as La Venere nera (1923), though little evidence of it can be found thereafter. It may be possible that the film was destroyed by Cendrars himself, as he himself claimed.

But before the film had been made, Cendrars had published his script in serial form, subtitled a ‘roman cinématographié’. This was La Perle fiévreuse. It is a spoof on detective fiction, with a host of renowned fictional detectives engaged in frantic pursuit of two women. The text is presented as though a director’s script, with precise filming instructions. Richard Abel (in Dada and Surrealist Film) provides a translated example of the effect:

1. Iris in on a small statue of Shiva dancing. Hold, then pan slowly over to the maid Co-Thaô, standing in a simple black dress. Hold; then track-dolly (in the same direction as the pan) until the camera reaches the door, which opens.

2. Now dolly through the doorway toward the meeting of the Hindu dancer Rougha and Miss Ethel Berkshire, who enters with an armful of flowers.

3. Close shot of Miss Ethel, surprised and delighted, brightly lit, a little in front of the door.

And so on, for around 850 ‘shots’. Gilbert Seldes was rather dismissive of the results:

American movie technique … M. Cendrars has evidently learned all too well, because he uses it, in all its tedious detail, in La Perle Fievreuse, for which he is publishing not a scenario but a director’s script, with the cutbacks and visions and close-ups all numbered and marked. It is in the manner of the old Biograph movies with what may turn out to be not such innocent fun at the expense of the detective film. Among its characters are Max Trick, director of Trick’s Criminal Courier, the great daily which specializes in criminal news. He is marked “Type: le President Taft” and is first shown in his office with twenty-five telephones in front of him; among his collaborators are Nick Carter and Arsène Lupin, Conan Doyle and Maurice Leblanc.

There is a long tradition of unfilmed screenplays published as texts, often because the demands of the writer’s imagination were too much for those who needed to finance such films and put them before an audience. One can either sees these as absurdities rightly turned down by level-headed producers, or a longing for a truly imaginative cinema unconstrained by the petty demands of the money man. Some French film theorists and avant garde-ists such Jean Epstein and Marcel L’Herbier did successfully bridge the gap between dreams and reality to become noted film directors, and of course Cendrars’ La Venere nera was produced. But diverting as his text may be, it is not truly a new work of the imagination.

Rather more to Seldes’ taste, because his cinema-novel was more fully realised and a genuine breakthrough in literary creation, was the work of his second example, Jules Romains (1885-1972). Romains was a poet, novelist and prosletyser for a literary movement of his own devising, Unanimism, which was concerned with a collective state of mind. He wrote many books, showed rather too much interest in Fascism, but what interests us here is one work with an extraordinary title: Donogoo-Tonka ou Les Miracles de la science: conte cinématographique, in English Donogoo Tonka or The Miracles of Science: A Cinematographic Tale (1920).

Donogoo had its genesis in a Blaise Cendrars initative. In 1918 Cendrars invited Jean Cocteau, Guillaume Apollinaire, Jules Romains and other to collaborate on a ‘cinema book’ which would bring together putative filmscripts by leading experimental writers. The book never happened, but Romains completed his scenario. However, although he argued that the text could be taken as a perfectly serviceable film script, in reality it was something halfway between the two media, and artfully achieved to be just so.

Romains’ cinema novel tells of a famous geographer, Yves Trouhadec, whose reputation depends on the discovery of the South American gold mining town Donogoo-Tonka which he placed on the map but unfortunately doesn’t exist. A would-be suicide Lamendin offers to float a company and lead an expedition to discover the lost town and save Trouhadec’s reputation. Lamendin creates fake films of the supposed town, sparking off a gold-rush. Adventurers come from all over the world to find Donogoo-Tonka, and having failed to find the town, build one anyway. Lamendin arrives to discover that the imaginary town exists after all, in which a religion is established, dedicated to scientific error (Romains’ main theme). Trouhadec is now a revered figure.

This is entertaining satire, but what is most interesting is the technique. Romains sets out his agenda in a prefatory note:

The framed portions of the text are to be projected on the screen. All the rest should be represented by the actors’ movements and by the possibilities of the staging.

Except when indicated in the text itself, the scenes should unfold with the normal rhythm of events in life. One should be especially wary of that unvarying and lamentable speed that too many people seem to see as one of the essential conventions of the cinematographic art.

Where there is some doubt on this point – in the scenes, for example, where the only events that unfold are the thoughts of the characters – it is better to err on the side of excessive slowness and overly scrupulous attention, so as to bring out all intentions and nuances.

These are, of course, instructions for reading, not viewing. Romains makes it clear that this is a cinematograph of the mind, though he does indeed have framed portions which serve as intertitles (though they are far more than that, serving as commentary and providing verbal illustrations), and the present tense narrative gives the sense of watching a film – yet it is a film where one sees equally the outward show and what is going on inside someone’s mind.

The technique is apparent in this extract:

A rapid succession of short scenes, each lasting barely a minute, shows us the propaganda for Donogoo-Tonka, insidious, rich in detail, irrepressible.

1. A fat fifty-year-old man has his morning hot chocolate in a pleasant dining room. The maid brings in the mail. The first envelope, when opened, lets out the prospectus for Donogoo-Tonka. The man skims it, without ceasing to eat his bread and butter. But watch how the twelve letters Donogoo-Tonka rise up, tear themselves free, escape from the paper and start scurrying, one after another, on the table, like a band of little mice …

… 3. A man struggles up the steps of an underground staircase. On the edge of each step: DONOGOO-TONKA. The inscription, at first lifeless and neutral, becomes more glistening, more active, from stair to stair. By the end the letters bulge out, corrode, burn. The man half-turns his head and through his no longer opaque skull we make out his brain, marked, like the shoulder of a convict, with twelve small, cracking letters.

We move from the literally visual (we’ve seen films like this before), to the arrestingly visual (OK, you could achieve that with animation, I’ve seen it done somewhere before) to the psychically visual (sorry M. Romains, but these sort of special effects won’t be around for another sixty years). It is avant garde cinema, before avant garde cinema existed.

Pages from the 1932 Dutch edition of Donogoo Tonka, with illustrations by Jo Spier, showing the ‘intertitle’ style on the left-hand page. From

Donogoo-Tonka is rather too obvious as satire, but it is an entertaining read and a constant stimulus to the imagination. It makes you think how you apprehend things, when reading, when watching, when simply living. Its dramatic possibilities did not interest film producers at the time, but a stage version was produced in Paris in 1930 and in Delft in 1931, the latter having filmed sequences shot by Joris Ivens, no less (sadly it is a lost film). It has been occasionaly staged since. In 1936 a German film version was produced, Donogoo Tonka, die geheimnisvolle Stadt, loosely based on the stage version but with a romantic plot. It was directed by Reinhold Schünzel and starred Anny Ondra. Romains disowned it.

Seldes is ringing in his praise of Romains’ achievement:

In the scenes which exploit the shares in Donogoo-Tonka we enter into the minds of individuals, of groups, of crowds; at the end the very framework of a building succumbs to the madness of the idea. And then, with a technical mastery not yet put into practise, M. Romains directs that the various scenes just projected be shown again, side by side, with a gradually accelerated rhythm. In the scenes of the adventurers we get glimpses at Marseilles, London, Naples, Porto, Singapore, San Francisco; then we see the groups starting out; the lines of their voyage converge. These scenes are projected first in succession and then simultaneously. Each time we see them we recognize some of the individuals we have seen before “And when by chance the faces are turned towards us, we have a feeling that they, too, recognize us.” The cinema has not yet accomplished that; chiefly, I fancy, because it never has been asked to.

Happily Donogoo Tonka was published in an English translation for the first time in 2009, with a knowledgable afterword by Joan Ockman.

There were other attempts at marrying the film text with the literary text at this time, for example Pierre Albert-Birot’s 2 x 2 = 1 (1919) and the dadaist poet Ivan Goll’s Die Chapliniade (1920). But the best known example from our period comes not from the French avant garde but from the English novelistic tradition, H.G. Wells‘ novel The King who was a King (1929).

The King who was a King is not one of Wells’ best works. It had its origins in an idea of his to produce a propaganda film on the subject of world peace, and it is as portentous and hectoring in tone as that might suggest. The film was never made, so Wells turned his ideas into a novel. What is interesting is its critique of cinema. In a long preface expressing disappointment with cinema story-telling, he expresses arguments that the literary modernist would have shared:

[T]he idea that the film was just a way of telling stories in moving pictures dominated the cinema theatre entirely for nearly a couple of decades, and still dominates it. It satisfied a hitherto unsuspected need for visual story-telling. It worked out lucratively … Can we get off the ground of the realistic story-film?

Wells set out to write a novel that demonstrates what he believes film should be able to achieve, as a vehicle for Wellsian ideas. Unfortunately he chose the wrong subject, and with insufficient appreciation of the method he was adopting. He shows some imaginative touches, describing the action throughout as though it is a film that we are watching, giving some indication of camera movements and scene-setting, but it remains novelistic in its thinking and in its unfolding. It lacks Romains’ wit. It makes the mistake of trying to correct film rather than trying to re-imagine the novel. The effect can be seen in this passage:

The film now plunges into the midst of Dr. Harting’s Steelville lecture upon The Causes of War.

Dr. Harting is an old distinguished-looking American, lean and tall, after the type of the late President Eliot of Harvard. He uses glasses to read his notes, and holds them in his hand while he speaks, often tapping the papers. He stands upon a platform at a reading-desk. Behind him are diagrams, indistinctly seen at first, and a chairman sits beside him. The picture is photographed with the camera turned somewhat upward in such a way as to make Dr. Harting slenderly dominant, like the prow of a ship.

A glimpse is given of Zelinka and Margaret sitting together in the front row of the audience, and then one sees a few other figures in the audience. Man the Destroyer is present, hostile and critical, and several commonplace and excitable types.

The lecturer says:

Do not imagine you can secure the Peace of the World by good resolutions. So long as you have national flags, national competition, national rivalry, you will have war.”

Man the Destroyer in the audience shouts, “Traitor,” and an old gentleman sitting near him says, “My country, right or wrong!” and looks round excitedly for approval.

A middle-aged man rises, points to the lecturer and says:

You go too fast and too far.”

The picture centres back on the lecturer.

This thinks that it is cinematic, but it isn’t. It simply sets out that which one might find in an ordinary novel, with the addition of camera placements. We would see the action anyway, without these additions. The use of present tense masks what is actually quite conventional. Wells understood film well enough, but he was too much the novelist to be able to express such understanding in words.

The cinema novel was an interesting by-product of the enthusiasm of the literary intelligensia for film in the late teens and early 1920s, as modernist ideas were evolving. It did not turn into a genre, because avant garde cinema emerged in the mid-1920s to fill the need. The true successors of La Fin du monde and Donogoo-Tonka were L’entracte (1924), La Coquille et le Clergyman (1928) and Un chien andalou (1929). However, the cinema novel did return three decades later through the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose concept of the ciné-roman presented the film script as a text which had an independent existence as a literary work. L’Année dernière à Marienbad is an example.

This post is indebted to the introduction by Garrett White to Blaise Cendrars, Hollywood: Mecca of the Movies (University of California Press, 1995), Joan Ockman’s afterword to Donogoo Tonka or The Miracles of Science (Buell Center/Princeton Architectural Press, 2009) and Richard Abel, ‘Exploring the Discursive Field of the Surrealist Film Scenario Text’, in Rudolf E. Kuenzli (ed.), Dada and Surrealist Film (MIT Press, 1996).

Pordenone diary 2010 – day five

Seating in the Verdi theatre, Pordenone

Let’s talk about seats. Given the amount of time that filmgoers spend sitting down to watch films, it surprising that the objects on which they rest while doing so seldom get discussed. Yet what the seating is and how it is arranged bear significantly upon our enjoyment of what is on the screen. I have sat on wooden chairs, benches, stone steps, sofas, armchairs, velvet plush seating, church pews and grass to watch silent films. At the Zancanaro theatre in Sacile, which was home to the Giornate del Cinema Muto for a few years, the seating was admirably comfortable so long as you were not much more than five-and-a-half-feet tall. For anyone of my height, you practically had to stretch yourself over three rows and to do so in an upper tier to avoid those neighbours who might quite reasonably object to such a display.

The seats under discussion here are those at the Verdi theatre in Pordenone. They are particularly comfortable seats. You could go a long way before finding better, and they could have been designed specifically to support the earnest silent film enthusiast determined to make it through three hours of the next Japanese film and being able to walk away afterwards. But then there is the matter of arrangement, and here is where the Verdi has its critics, certainly among film followers. The theatre was not designed for cinema screenings. This is most obvious in the first circle, where the central portion of seats has to be covered up because the heads of the audience would get in the way of the projector beam. But it is the sight-lines that cause the most comment. It’s not a matter that bothers me that much – I have an odd preference for looking at films from the periphery – but many want to have an optimum view of the screen wherever they choose to sit, and here the Verdi comes up short. So there is great competition for favourite seats, and festival regulars tend to occupy the same section of the theatre year after year. There is the front row crew (earnestly taking notes on every film), those who like to stretch their legs over the gap between rows midway up the stalls, those happiest to look down from the first circle (like yours truly, always seated front row, penultimate seat to the right as you face the screen), and the upper circle afficionados who look to escape the madding crowd (and hello to the cheery bunch of American students who occupied the central portion of the upper tier and whose enthusiasm for all that the festival had to offer was a delight to witness). As with any public space, the Verdi is wonderful for people watching.

Choosing your favourite seat at the Verdi

And so, after all that talk of seats, we turn to a different sort of furniture with the first film on Wednesday 6 October, Tretya Meshchanskaya (USSR 1927), known in English as Bed and Sofa. Directed by Abram Room, this gained much notoriety on its release for its frank depiction of a ménage à trois between a building worker, his bored wife, and his printer friend who is invited to stay in their Moscow apartment. Its piquant polygamous set-up, the uncritical acceptance of sexual relations outside marriage, and discussion of abortion make the film strikingly modern in tone (Jules et Jim without the savoir faire), but what really fascinates is the background detail and the attention to the minutiae of life. There is the vividness of everyday life on the Moscow streets, and the absorbing clutter of the apartment with its nick-nacks, pictures, the Stalin calendar, the curtain dividing one couple from the other man, and of course the bed and sofa. The film also allowed space for its characters to be seen thinking, engaging in the mundane. Though in the end the ménage à trois itself felt too forced, what remained with you was the sense of a film true to life as seen and felt.

Another Room film followed, Yevrei Na Zemle (Jews on the Land) (USSR 1927), a documentary on Jewish resettlements in a stark, flat, tree-less Crimea whose impact wasn’t what it might have been because the Russian titles weren’t translated, which meant we missed the reportedly light-hearted tone that they took.

I decided not to sit through Rejin (Japan 1930) (The Belle), which tipped the scales at a mere 158 minutes this time, but the print was poor and I reckoned my eyes needed a rest. After a mooch around Pordenone and conversations at the Posta, I returned in the afternoon for one of the great treats (for me) of the festival, a series of films made in Madagascar in 1898 (images from Cinémathèque française site). As someone who thought he knew film from the 1890s pretty thoroughly, news of a filmmaker from this period entirely new to the history books was thrilling in itself. Louis Tinayre was a French artist with a fascinting personal history (his parents were Communards). He made a speciality of paintings as reportage. He travelled with a French military force to Madagascar in 1895 when an uprising was being quelled and was fascinated by the country. He returned later in the year to make sketches and photographs, then again in 1898 to work on a giant panorama of the surrender of the town of Antananarivo which he exhibited at the Paris Exposition in 1900. But he didn’t just take his brush and canvas – he brought with him a Lumière Cinématographe.

How and why he obtained the camera is not known – he may have been filming scenes to aid his work on the panorama. Eighteen films have survived, having been presented to the Cinémathèque française by the filmmaker’s grandson in 2009. They are thrilling to see. Artfully composed, they show Madgascan people at work in fields, road building, going to market, going about their daily drudgery. We were shown thirteen of the eighteen, with these titles:

  • Chantier de terrassement à Marorangotra [Construction of terraces at Marorangotra]
  • Femmes chargeés montant et descendant une colline [Laden women going up and down a hill]
  • Environs de Tananarive. Marché à Alatsinainy [Environs of Antananarivo, capital of Madagascar. Market at Alatsinainy]
  • Labour de rizières par les boeufs [Ploughing in the paddy fields with oxen]
  • Chantier d’empierrement à Marorangotra [Constructing a road at Marorangotra]
  • Vallée [Valley]
  • Forge malgache à Marorangotra [Malagasy forge at Marorangotra]
  • La route d’Ambohimanara. Un jour de marché à Tananarive [The Ambohimanara road. A market day in Antananarivo]
  • Labour de rizières à l’Angady [Ploughing the paddy fields at Angady]
  • L’artère principale du marché à Tananarive [The main road of the market at Antananarivo]
  • Jeunes garçons fabriquant des briques [Boys making clay bricks]
  • Femmes transportant paniers près d’un ruisseau [Women carrying baskets near a stream]
  • Hommes travaillant sur un chantier [Men working on a construction]

The people were all shown in mid-distance, with never a glimpse of a face, mere figures in a landscape (possibly supporting the panorama thesis) though always displaying movement. It was the colonial gaze par excellence. The films (in wonderfully sharp prints) were utterly compelling, just to be seeing so far back, images from a remote land being filmed for the first time, revealing landscapes and customs that were centuries old and were now captured in motion. An added bonus was that the films were accompanied by Touve Ratovondrahety, a Malagasy himself, who played piano and sang Madagascan songs. The happy sense of homeland rediscovered was palpable.

Some Pordenone regulars may mutter at these early films and hanker for the emotional journey that the feature film offers, but for others the rare chance to see the early films is why we want to be there. And so we moved to the latest installment of the Corrick Collection, a remarkable collection of films from the mid to late 1900s amassed by an Australian family of touring entertainers, and now featured over a number of Giornates. The films were introduced by festival director David Robinson, who comitted an engaging faux pas when he announced the award of some medal to the New Zealand film archive for its work in preserving the collection, an award that was diplomatically collected by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, which cares for the films.

The films were the usual marvellous mix. Among the stand-out titles were Le Singe Adam (France 1909), one of the most memorable films of the whole festival, in which a trained baboon imitated the actions of its trainer to an extraordinary degree that divided up the audience equally into amused and disturbed; an unidentified British film given the title The Arrested Tricar (GB c.1905) in which three boys steal a motorcar which eludes them and drives off by itself; Don Quixote (France 1904) a meticulously recreated set of scenes by Pathé including windmills that turned into giants and an impressive alternating between studio and open-air setting, all rounded off with the habitual appearance by the Pathé dancing girls; Le Sculpteur Express (France 1907), an unusual variation on the familiar ‘lightning sketch’ form of early film, here shown a sculptor making clay faces at speed; and the delightful A Winter Straw Ride (USA 1906) showing a bobsleigh journey through the show with beautiful scenic effects.

No Rastro Do Eldorado (The Silence of the Amazon), from

Farsangi mámor (Hungary 1921) was a three-minute fragment of an otherwise lost Hungarian feature film which was identified after stills were published on the Lost Films site. This was followed by No Rastro Do Eldorado (Brazil 1925) (The Silence of the Amazon), a return visit to the Brazilian jungle. The film was made by Silvino Santos and documented the travels of American geographer Alexander Hamilton Rice as he mapped areas of the Amazon. The film’s presentation was unusual – there were no intertitles, instead we got a somewhat breathy female live commentary taken from Rice’s own accounts of the expedition, plus a creative multi-instrumentalist who played electronica, clarinet, percussion and guitar. Rice’s words revealed a superior attitude towards the native peoples which jarred somewhat with the poetic delivery. The film was profficient at best (though the aerial views were stunning), but the print – which was supplied by the Brazilians but came via the BFI National Archive – was awful, with very poor definition. I just hope negative material survives and that someone can try and produce something a good deal sharper.

Marizza, from

The Giornate likes to reserve the special treats for the evening shows, and pride of place went to a thirteen-minute, seventeen-second fragment of an otherwise lost feature film, Marizza, Genannt die Schmuggler-Madonna (Germany 1921-22). The reason this was so special was because the director was F.W. Murnau. The fragment survives with Italian titles in a tinted print. It would be easy to read too much into this early work of a master, and to be honest I wonder how many would detect Murnau’s hand in a tale of a bewitching gypsy loved by a customs officer and an elegant gentleman. However, even as an anonymous fragment you would have noted the adroit handling and keen eye for the right image. It looked like we were going to get Carmen in the countryside, then all too quickly it was gone and mere speculation remained.

Next up was one of the festival special musical events, with two French films accompanied by Maud Nelissen (piano), Lucio Degani (violin) and Francesco Ferrarini (‘cello). First up, shown to Yves de la Casinière’s original score, was Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien Que Les Heures (France 1926). This venerable classic of the avant garde is an odd, beguiling work which gives an oblique view of life in Paris, mixing documentary shots with dramatised sequences. It sometimes gets labelled with the city symphonies, but it could have been set in any town or city. As the the title suggest, its real concern is time and its passing, which is the best of themes for a work of art. I’ve seen it many times and don’t think I will ever tire of it.

Next, and last for me that day, was Germaine Dulac’s La Folie des Vaillants (France 1926). I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. It was a feminist gypsy drama of sorts (gypsies featured strongly at the Giornate), which emphasised feeling over such trivial matters as acting and plot (a Gorky story). Unfortunately acting and plot are just what audiences look out for to anchor themselves, and the film’s technical limitations distracted from the filmmaker’s symbolic intentions. Also it’s hard these days to take gypsies as the epitome of social freedom in the way that Dulac (and Murnau) did in the 1920s. So it didn’t quite work for me, but it was graced by a quite superb score from the Maud Nelissen trio – the music from the festival that I’d most want to hear again.

And then I slipped away, into the balmy night.

Pordenone diary 2010 – day one
Pordenone diary 2010 – day two
Pordenone diary 2010 – day three
Pordenone diary 2010 – day four
Pordenone diary 2010 – day six
Pordenone diary 2010 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2010 – day eight

Adventures in silent pictures

Makin’ Whoopee, part of Susan Stroman’s Double Feature, from

We haven’t had enough ballet here on The Bioscope. So, just opened at the New York State Theater is Broadway choreographer Susan Stroman’s “Double Feature”, performed by the New York City Ballet. The two parts of the ballet, which was first commissioned in 2004, are “The Blue Necklace” and “Makin’ Whoopee”. Both are inspired by silent movies, blending melodrama with slapstick comedy.

Silent film would seem to be a natural source of inspiration for ballet, and there are examples dotted around. Matthew Bourne’s dance company Adventures in Motion Pictures indicates some of its inspiration by its name, and Bourne has drawn on silent film for sets (Caligari helped inspired his “Cinderella”) as well as dance.

Amy Moore Morton, artistic director of the Appalachian Ballet Company, created and dances the lead in “With Chaplin”, which is none too surprisingly centred on Charlie Chaplin.

In the silent era itself ballet does not seem to have featured that often, but there are some notable exception. René Clair’s sublime Entr’acte (1924) was created as an interlude to feature between the acts of Francis Picabia’s ballet “Relâche”, performed by the Ballets Suédois with music by Erik Satie.

Also from the avant garde, Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique is ballet in cinema form, even if it doesn’t feature dance as such, except the dance of objects and machines (plus a Chaplin figure). It was was created by American composer American composer George Antheil and Léger, though music and film did not come together for many years. So, in that spirit, here’s a clip from the film with music by guitarist Gary Lucas (a Bioscope favourite). Sorry about the faux scratches at the start.

Gary Lucas playing to an extract from Ballet Mécanique

Returning to Chaplin, don’t forget the dance (ballet) of the rolls from The Gold Rush (1925). And indeed you could argue for any number of Chaplin films for their balletic qualities.

Moving to modern silent director, Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002) is a ballet version of the Dracula story with German Expressionist decor and choreography by ballet director Mark Godden.

A modern oddity is Le Sacre du Printemps (2005), a film by Oliver Hermann which bills itself as a “‘Silent Movie’ to Stravinsky’s ballet score”. Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philarmonic on the DVD release, and to judge from reviews it’s something of a challenging experience:

…a pair of albino men in tutus, a godlike black female figure baking tiny people like cookies in her kitchen, nuns, voodoo rituals, walls of neatly-mounted Polaroid snapshots being broken thru with an axe, or people endlessly lost in a giant green maze. Not to mention some very sexual scenes and a roomful of naked figures writhing around which disturbingly hovered between Dante’s Inferno and a Nazi death camp ‘shower’.

Hmm. Let us turn instead to Anna Pavlova, greatest of all ballerinas, who appears in three extant silent films, Lois Weber’s The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916), a feature film drama in which she acts rather than dances; Anna Pavlova (1924), which is a non-fiction film depicting her in various ballet sequences filmed in New York in 1924; plus there is a fragment of film of her dancing ‘Columbine’ on the set of Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924).

Lastly, it’s worth noting that many of the silent film pianists of today help earn their daily bread by playing for ballet and dance classes. Carl Davis has written for ballet as well as his renowned silent film scores, and it would be interesting to know how silent film musicians view accompanying dance or accompanying the screen, and what the interelationships might be.

Any more examples? Just let me know.

Music for experimental film

I missed this excellent-looking DVD release from Kino when it appeared late last year, but no harm in drawing attention to it now.

Music for Experimental Film is a collection of avant garde film classics from the 1920s, with music from former Television guitarist and front man Tom Verlaine plus producer/guitarist Johnny Rip. Originally a live show, the DVD features the original films with the music accompaniment for the most played live from a selection of the concerts.

The films featured are:

L’Étoile de Mer (France 1928 12 mins Man Ray)

The Fall of the House of Usher (USA 1928 13 mins James S. Watson & Melville Webber)

The Life and Death of 9413 A Hollywood Extra (USA 928 11 mins Slavko Vorkapich and Robert Florey)

Emak-Bakia (France 1926 13 mins Man Ray)

Rhythmus 21 (Germany 1921 3 mins Hans Richter)

Brumes d’Automne (France 1929 12 mins Dimitri Kirsanoff)

Ballet Mécanique (France 1924 10 mins Fernand Léger)

To judge from the extracts Kino have provided on the YouTube promo (Emak-Bakia, Rhythmus 21 and Ballet Mécanique) the marriage of delicate post-punk guitar and the visual purity of the films (all the better for the occasional scratches and blemishes earned through age) works particularly well. An apposite and haunting combination.

2008 Man with a Movie Camera

2008 Man with a Movie Camera

1929 and 2008 Man with a Movie Camera, from

You may remember the posts on video artist Perry Bard’s remarkable project in ‘database cinema’ to create a modern version of Dziga Vertov’s avant garde documentary classic, Man with a Movie Camera, by inviting anyone interested to upload modern equivalent shots to those in the original. You can find all about the ongoing project on Bard’s website, at, but she got in touch to correct an earlier post about the project with this information:

There was an initial deadline which may have led to some confusion however the project is open and ongoing.The reason for the deadline is that people tend to like the excitement of doing things at the zero hour and we wanted as much material as we could get for the launch in Manchester October 11. It continued screening there for two weeks, then screened in Norwich during the Aurora Festival, in Leeds during the Leeds Film Festival. There are links to photos of these events on the site.The site now contains a full length version of the remake which plays as a split screen with the original. We don’t have the server capacity to keep updating the remake but with each screening event it works through a daily download meaning that the film is different each time it screens as more than one person has uploaded entire scenes and shots. The possibilities are infinite. Please participate by logging on to

There’s also a two-minute trailer available, and the full-length split-screen film (in its current version) is available from Google Video.

21st Century Vertov

You may remember the report of a few months ago about video artist Perry Bard’s idea to recreate Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera with uploaded contributions from volunteers around the world.

Man with a Movie Camera, scene 10

Man with a Movie Camera, scene 10, 1928 and 2007 versions, from

The initial deadline for this was 15 September, with the planned new, participatory version of the film being screened on Big Screen Manchester. However, as the project site demonstrates, the uploading continues, with people offering their modern video equivalents of scenes from Vertov’s original (which can be seen on her site in its entirety or scene by scene). You can view each of the sequences, original and remake, though not the new version in its entirety. I haven’t found evidence that it been screened anywhere as yet (does anyone know?), but the site is an extraordinary and thought-provoking work just by itself. Do explore.

Pordenone diary – day two

You could always go to the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, not see any films at all, and still have a marvellous and rewarding time. Some, it would appear, do just that. The weather is gorgeous, the restaurants inviting, every street is strewn with the chairs of pavement cafés, and much negotiating over the higher and lower politics of film archives goes on. It is the place where alliances are made, projects are hatched, and deals are done.

The Bioscope, however, rose with the lark (should they have such in Italy) on day two and headed for the Verdi. At Pordenone, screenings start at 9.00am in the main cinema and run til around 1.00pm, then resume 2.30pm, stop again around 6.00pm, then after supper it’s back for the final long haul from 8.30pm to midnight or so. There’s a second, smaller theatre, used for repeat showings and video screenings, the Ridotto. Had you seen everything at the Verdi on the Sunday, you would have seen seventeen titles. Many come with intertitles other than English, so earphone translation is provided. I have a stubborn belief that if a film is well-made enough, not knowing the language of the titles is not a problem – the pictures alone will suffice. This doesn’t entirely work, but I shunned the headphones, and just about got by.

First up was a selection of American shorts on social interest themes from the forthcoming Treasures from the American Film Archives III DVD. Regrettably, I missed The Black Hand (1906), the first Mafia-themed film and The Cost of Carelessness (1913), an educational film with a scene of children watching an educational film (OK, not everyone’s idea of a thrill, but I’d have been intrigued to see it). So, we kicked off with The Hazards of Helen: Episode 13 – The Escape on the Fast Frieght (1915). Not an obvious choice for a selection of films on social themes, but it was argued that Helen’s (Helen Holmes) position as a railroad telegraph operator assumed by her co-workers to be too feeble to do anything made an interesting social comment on the many women office workers of the time. Because, of course, Helen heroically fought villains across the top of the carriages of a speeding train, before returning to her job where no one was any the wiser about her. It’s not always realised that many of the early serials were not cliff-hangers, but rounded off the story neatly at the end of each episode, before resuming much the same narrative with the succeeding episode. Bud’s Recruit (1918) was a two-reel recruiting drama, where a group of neighbourhood kids form themselves into a ramshackle troop, led by all-American Bud, but it is his effete, bespectacled elder brother who by accident ends up joining the army – and of course discovering that it has made him into a true man. So a bit resistible in theme, but well-made – the director was King Vidor. Lastly in this set there was Labor’s Reward (1925), the one surviving reel of five from a dramatised history of unionism produced by the American Federation of Labor. It put particular emphasis on the exploitation of women workers, and begged audiences to buy only from shops which advertised union-made products. Quite fascinating, and a highly-polished production too.

The Cameraman's Revenge

The Cameraman’s Revenge, from Wikipedia

Pause for breath, then down go the lights for the first of the Ladislaw Starewitch strand. The reason for this seemes to have been a fine touring exhibition of artefacts and photographs of Starewitch’s work which was on display, but the films themselves were a mish-mash of old restorations. We saw Mest’ Kinematograficheskogo Operatora (The Cameraman’s Revenge) (1911), Prekrasaia Lukanida (The Beautiful Lucanid) (1910) and Rozhdestvo Obitatelei (The Insects’ Christmas) (1911), all products of Starewitch’s mindboggling idea to make stop-frame animation films using models of grasshoppers, stag beetles and such like. The Insects’ Christmas was a special delight, Santa Claus climbing down off a Christmas Tree to wake some insects out of hibernation and to treat them to their own festivities.

Pordenone Film Fair

Pordenone Film Fair

I missed the German film Rivalen (1923) as I had to go to my own crucial pavement café negotiation (the fruits of which you’ll have to wait until January 2009 to see), then to the Pordenone book fair, a fascinating mix of sturdy academic volumes on improbable themes in a multiplicity of languages, and posters, photographs and tattered memorablia for the cinema of the childhood of many of the older festival goers – but such is Pordenone.

The afternoon kicked off with Entr’acte (1924), first off in the René Clair retrospective, with musical accompaniment of Erik Satie’s score by two pianists, Barbara Rizzi and Antonio Nimis. What more is there to say about one of the great jeu d’esprit of avant garde cinema, originally a filmed interlude shown between the two acts of the Dadaist Francis Picabia’s notorious ballet Relâche? The central action is a funeral procession, with the mourners initially lollopping along behind in mock-serious manner, before having to speed up to a manic rush as the hearse (pulled by a camel, naturally) gets faster and faster. A promo-reel for the festival was projected on the outside of the Verdi at night, which included this magical sequence, like so:

Teatro Verdi at night

Teatro Verdi at night, showing promotional video with scene from L’Entr’acte

Another strand was The Other Weimar. This initially puzzling title introduced the German cinema of the 1920s that we seldom see. Thanks to the studies of Kracauer and Eisner, much of the studies of German cinema at this time has focussed on Expressionism and the fevered productions whose themes seemed to anticipate the nightmares of Nazism. This strand showed the work of the directors who did not get round to making Caligari or Metropolis – those who tended to make the films that people actually went to see.

Wege Zu Kraft und Schönheit (The Way to Strength and Beauty) (1924-25) was a surprise inclusion, being a health, dance and sports documentary, albeit a popular one at the time – probably on account of its liberal displays of nudity. It was an example of the Ufa studio’s documentaries, or Kulturfilme, and most entertainingly had the festival-goers squirming in their seats as its theme of the need for us to get up off our backsides and start walking seemed all too relevant. Though it was a bit long and repetitive, it was made with mocking wit and some style, with plenty to fascinate fans of dance (including Mary Wigman and Tamara Karsavina) and sport (Babe Ruth, Helen Wills, Charley Paddock). And the keen-eyed would have spotted Leni Riefenstahl in her first film, no doubt picking up ideas for Olympia twelve years away, as a maid in a Roman bath sequence.

I cannot now remember what crucial meeting it can have been that led me to miss Fatty Arbuckle in The Cook (1918) and Max Davidson in the immortal Pass the Gravy (1928), but I hope it was really important.

In the evening, Jean Vigo’s A Propos de Nice (1930). We had been promised Michael Nyman playing his own piano score, but he was unwell, and was replaced by one of the Pordenone regulars, John Sweeney – who was magnificent. The films at Pordenone are accompanied by a small team of pianists, generally hidden from view beneath the stage, with a monitor showing them the action and headphones translating the titles. This year we had Neil Brand, Gabriel Thibaudeau, Günther Buchwald, John Sweeney, Stephen Horne, Donald Sosin, Phil Carli and Antonio Coppola. High praise to them all. A Propos de Nice is surprisingly amateurish in places (they didn’t know much about focus), but its cumulative vision of the human madness on display in Nice confirmed its greatness.

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian Film Archive, the evening’s feature film was Csak Egy Kislány Van a Világon (Only One Girl in the World) (1930), the first Hungarian sound film, though most of it was silent with sonorised score. This was the tale of two war veterans who love the same woman. She falls for the livelier, he falls for another woman when he travels to the city, his friend brings them together again, culminating in a sentimental rendition of the title song. It was a simple yet curiously appealing piece with the quality of a folk tale and a structure in movements that seemed to cry out for its expression as a nineteenth-century symphony. The heroine was played by the 18-year-old Márta Eggerth, now aged ninety-five, who remakably was not able to be at the screening because she is still working (as a teacher of singing). But David Robinson, the festival director, called her on the phone afterwards, and we were treated to the extraordinary experience of listening to this lively woman who sounded as spirited and lively as she had been in 1930, while she experienced the oddness of having her telephone conversation warmly applauded by an invisible audience.

And so to bed.

Clonic Mutations

Just time to let you know about Clonic Mutations, another silent film event taking place at Tate Modern as part of its Dali & Film strand, on Friday 20 July. Here’s the blurb:

Clonic Mutations features the world premiere of live new music scores created for a range of experimental films made between 1904 and 1952 with strong ties to surrealism. Composed for twelve musicians and clockwork toys by Sergio López Figueroa, a Spanish composer and specialist in silent film, the scores examine new contextual relationships between music, historical experimental film and art. The screening will feature the newly restored version of Un Chien andalou by Filmoteca Española.

Programme duration approx 60′

The Strength and Agility of Insects, F. Percy Smith, 1911, 3’58, DVD

A Phantasy, Norman McLaren, 1952, 7’15, 16mm

El Hotel eléctrico, Segundo de Chomón, 1904, 4′, digiBeta

Tusalava, Len Lye, 1929, 9′, 35mm

L’Étoile de mer, Man Ray, 1928, 18′, 35mm

Un Chien Andalou, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, 1929, 17′, 35mm

Full details from the Tate Modern site.

Worldwide montage


Now here’s an extraordinary thing. Video artist Perry Bard is planning a remake of Dziga Vertov’s classic avant garde documentary Man with a Movie Camera, and is inviting the world to join in.

Her plan is to use the web to archive, sequence and deliver submissions for a remake of the 1929 film, which will then be exhibited on the Big Screen Manchester (a BBC initiative to bring big screen pictures to city squares) UK on 11 October 2007, with more public venues visited throughout the UK through 2008.

The project website,, has a scene index with every shot of Vertov’s film recorded in thumbnails and logged in seconds and number of frames. Would-be Vertov’s of today can upload their footage (or still images, or even text), which does not have to match the original shot but should come close to it in length – it’s the rhythmic patterning that counts. Presumably it’s meant to be one shot contributed per person.

Goodness what the results will be like (or how she will select what’s sent, or even how many different potential versions might emerge), but it’s an amazing idea, and certainly has something of the spirit of Vertov’s radical work about it. Here’s the artist’s explanation of how her work connects with that of Vertov:

Vertov’s 1929 film Man With A Movie Camera records the progression of one full day synthesizing footage shot in Moscow, Riga, and Kiev. The film begins with titles that declare it “an experiment in the cinematic communication of visible events without the aid of intertitles, without the aid of a scenario, without the aid of theater.” It is often described as an urban documentary yet the subject of the film is also the film itself – from the role of the cameraman to that of the editor to its projection in a theatre and the response of the audience. It is a film within a film made with a range of inventive effects – dissolves, split screen, slow motion, freeze frame – all of which are now embedded in digital editing software … When the work streams your contribution becomes part of a worldwide montage, in Vertov’s terms the “decoding of life as it is”.

The project site also has the the entire film to view (via Google Video). Uploading starts in August.

Whatever next?