Kevin, Roger and Metropolis

Kevin’s wineglass

Well, it’s been quite a day. As all the silent world knows by now, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has decided to award an honorary Oscar to Kevin Brownlow. Together with Francis Ford Coppola (who is receiving the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award), Jean-Luc Godard and Eli Wallach, he will be receiving his Academy Award at the Academy’s 2nd Annual Governors Awards dinner on Saturday, November 13, at the Grand Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland Center. To quote from the Academy’s press release:

Brownlow is widely regarded as the preeminent historian of the silent film era as well as a preservationist. Among his many silent film restoration projects are Abel Gance’s 1927 epic “Napoleon,” Rex Ingram’s “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (1921) and “The Thief of Bagdad” (1924), starring Douglas Fairbanks. Brownlow has authored, among others, The Parade’s Gone By; The War, the West, and the Wilderness; Hollywood: The Pioneers; Behind the Mask of Innocence; David Lean; and Mary Pickford Rediscovered. His documentaries include “Hollywood,” “Unknown Chaplin,” “Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow,” “Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius” and “D.W. Griffith: Father of Film,” all with David Gill; Brownlow also directed “Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic” and “Garbo,” the latter with Christopher Bird.

Never was an Academy Award more richly deserved, nor – so far as I know – has such an award ever gone to a film historian [correction – he’s the third – see comments]. Brownlow is far more than a historian, of course, being a filmmaker, film preservationist and programme maker, but it is his principled and dedicated investigation into silent film history (out of which has come preservation, exhibition, writing and programmes) that stands out. He made silent films special once again.

By happy chance I met Kevin today, being warmly congratulated by all. I asked if I could take a photo of him for the Bioscope – he said I could take the photo, but not publish it online (there have been too many photos, he said), so I have acceded to this request and instead have published a quick snap made of the wineglass he was holding. Cheers to you Kevin.

The event we were both at was a retirement party for Roger Smither, held at the Imperial War Museum in London. Now while Kevin Brownlow is famed among all who revere silent films, Roger will only be known by a few, but his contribution to film history and film culture has been no less important. He retires as Keeper of the IWM’s Film and Video Archive, arguably the world’s oldest film archive (it was founded in 1919), and has presided over the British official film record of the First and Second World Wars, including hundreds of classic titles, and for the First World War a marvellously rich collection of silent film material documenting evey aspect of the war, including the home front experience. He was instrumental in the restoration of The Battle of the Somme (1916) and its inscription on the UNESCO Memory of the World register. He has written knowledgeably on the Somme and other war films in many publications, and he edited the weighty classic This Film is Dangerous, a history of nitrate film, published by FIAF – a body of which he was Secretary-General for some years. He has been an exceptional servant to film archives and the Bioscope warmly wishes him a happy retirement.


And then I left the party to go and see another filmed inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World, Metropolis – specifically the 2010 restored version receiving its UK premiere at the BFI Southbank. It’s interesting speaking to some film archivists to pick up on a bit of a backlash against the Metropolis restoration, which is perhaps a reaction to all the hype. Some are saying that the 16mm inserts don’t add anything, that the film was better the way that it was, and that the whole business is being oversold. Well, seeing the film at last for myself I was hugely impressed by the restoration. It seemed to me to be a model presentation of the material, with the 16mm material clearly of a substandard quality but giving a special thrill to the audience whever it turned up, as you picked up on what had been cut and why, so that you ended up with the sense of watching two films – the one we’ve known before, and the one we have now. It was an engrossing lesson in film restoration and the mutability of cultural artefacts.

The film itself I have never much loved, aside from the exceptional robot transformation sequence, and it seems even more ridiculous than ever. The additional sequences make the filmmakers’ intentions clearer, but they also expose what a muddled plot the film has (and why the cuts were made in the first place). It is muddled not only in narrative, but in conception, dramatic motive, politics and morals. It is a stupendous folly, packed full of glorious, iconic images, but without a single credible idea to hold them together.

I don’t know if the comparison has been made before, but I kept on thinking of Cabiria (1914). It wasn’t just that both films have Moloch scenes, or the histronics of Metropolis that hark back to an earlier age (the film critic Geoff Brown once memorably said of Alfred Abel’s performance that he played someone who, if you asked him what the time was, would mime the operations of a sundial). Metropolis and Cabiria were each epic European productions of the kind that (in the immortal words of Sam Goldwyn) starts out with an earthquake and works its way up to a climax, with buildings tumbling down and flood waters threatening to drown all. The humans are mere ciphers; chaos is all. The spectacle was designed to overawe audiences and to outdo what could be done on the American screen. In a way, Metropolis was a very old-fashioned sort of film for 1927.

Mad folly it may be, but it’s a film that has to be seen, and then argued over. There are ample opportunities to do so now that it has reached the UK – see the list of screenings provided by Eureka Entertainment. The DVD will follow shortly, but it’s a film for the cinema screen if you can.

Busy, busy, busy

Things are a bit hectic down at Bioscope Towers these days, and what with broadband problems, not only is it hard to find time to write posts but even when the time does appear I can’t post them. So, in my lunch break, and before heading off to the Imperial War Museum to mark the retirement of its highly estemeed Keeper of the Film and Video Archive, Roger Smither, and then to the BFI Southbank to see the ‘new’ Metropolis, here are links to some interesting posts on silent cinema which other bloggers have produced lately.

Doing things differently
George Clark reports on the pioneering programme of early films shown at the recent Oberhausen Short Film Festival, for AP Engine. Enthusiastic, but not uncritical.

From the career of Louis J. Mannix
Nick Redfern, at the highly impressive Research into Film blog, takes a break from statistical analysis to tell us about (and quote from) the rare memoirs of a Leeds projectionist operating in the silent era.

Never too late silents
Kristin Thompson assesses the silent films of Joseph von Sternberg through the recent Criterion DVD set at the indispensible Observations on Film Art blog that she shares with David Bordwell.

Kevin Brownlow to receive special Oscar
From the San Francisco Silent Film Festival blog, news that Kevin Brownlow is to be awarded an honorary award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Huge cheers and hats in the air about that piece of news.

The Lindgren manifesto
And from my other, infrequently updated blog, Moving Image, here’s philosopher-film archivist Paolo Cherchi Usai’s provocative but thought-provoking fourteen-point manifesto for film curators of the future, named after the founder of the BFI National Archive. Make of it what you will.

Shoot a film, save a film

How good are you with a movie camera? Better than me, I hope, and if you are looking for a subject to bring out your finer skills and commitment to the moving image medium, then why not participate in the AMIA Short film Competition?

AMIA – the Association of Moving Image Archivists – has announced a short film competition on the theme of ‘Preserving the world’s moving image heritage’. AMIA is celebrating its twentieth years as an organisation dedicated to preserving moving images, and it wants the competition to provide an opportunity “to emphasize the importance of saving our moving images as important educational, historical, and cultural resources”.

The specific challenge is to produce a film running between two and three minutes which conveys the importance of saving the world’s moving image heritage. The competition is open to everyone, and you can submit more than one production. All entries must be in the English language or with English subtitles. Submissions may include any combination of original and archival material. All entries must be on DVD, formatted Region 1 or 0.

Submissions will be accepted from 15 June 2010 and the deadline is 30 August 2010. There will be be Grand Prize of $2,500 (USD) prize, to be announced on October 27 as part of the World Day of Audiovisual Heritage celebration, and will be screened at the AMIA 2010 conference‘s Archival Screening Night, on 5 November 2010 in Philadelphia, PA. The runner-up will receive $1,000 (USD). The winner, runner-up and finalists’ productions will be included on the AMIA website.

Further details, including submission rules, technical requirements and entry form, are available on the AMIA website. Get cranking.

(The photo at the top of this post shows J.B. McDowell manning the camera, with British newsreel producer William Jeapes to the right, and Warwick Trading Company manager Will Barker obscured behind McDowell. It dates from 1908)

iCUBED silent film contest

Back we go to the modern silent, and to another competition which encourages budding filmmakers to think in a silent way. is a Hong Kong-based social website for teenagers, and last year it established a one-minute silent film festival/competition. The competition returns this year, in collaboration with the relief agencies Crossroads and UNHCR. Anyone registered with the contest and aged between 13 and 21 can submit a one-minute silent video, which can include music but no speech. Contestants are encouraged to enter as teams. There are no formal judges. Entrants need to upload their videos to YouTube and send the link by 1 February 2010. The two films with the highest rating (i.e. up to five stars) and the highest number of raters will be the winners. Which is an ingenious and social way of running a contest.

The video above shows the winners from the 2008/09 contest – Imagination, Rumors, and Kindness – Girl & Xmas Tree. More details of the contest, including a registration form, from the site.

Harishchandrachi Factory


Early cinema is making a bid for world recognition with the announcement that the film Harishchandrachi Factory has just been nominated as India’s official entry to the 2010 Academy Awards. The film, written, produced and directed by Paresh Mokashi, tells the story of Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, producer of India’s first full-length feature film in 1913, Raja Harishchandra.

Harishchandrachi Factory has a lively website, where you can see clips, stills and learn about the production and D.G. Phalke himself. It tells the romanticised story of how Phalke took the medium that was the plaything of Europeans, Americans and elitist Indians, and gave it to the people, creating the Indian film industry in the process.


Phalke was the one-man pioneer of Indian dramatic cinema – director, productor, cameraman, editor, actor, and all points in between. He was born in 1870, the son of a Sanskrit scholar, and after studying art and architecture became a photographer, make-up artist and even had a magic act, before established a printing works in in 1908. It was apparently the experience of seeing a filmed life of Christ in Bombay around 1911 that inspired him to establish a native Indian cinema. He travelled to Britain in 1912, puchasing a Williamson camera and gaining instruction in film techniques from Cecil Hepworth.

He formed the Phalke Films Company that same year, and made his first film Raja Harishchandra, in 1913 (Phalke encouraged the belief that his was India’s first dramatic film, but it was preceded by two short dramatic films). The film told the story from Hindu mythology of King Harishchandra, as told in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The story tells how the virtuous king sacrifices his kingdom and his family in the pursuit of truth, only to be restored to power through the intervention of the grateful gods. The film was originally 3,700ft long, and around half survives of what is said to be the film at the National Film Archive of India, though some sources state that what survives comes from Phalke’s 1917 remake Satyavadi Raja Harishchandra. The Archive lists eight Phalke films in its collection: Raja Harishchandra, Lanka Dahan (1917), Shree Krishna Janma (1918), Kaliya Mardan (1919), Sinhasta Mela (1921), Tukaram (1921), Brick Laying (1922), Setu Bandhan (1932) and the undated Pithache Panje. Scenes of Phalke at work also exist from a 1917 short Chitrapat Kase Tayar Kartat (How Films are Made).


Scene from Raja Harishchandra (either 1913 or 1917 version), from

Phalke Films made four more films, then in 1914 Phalke returned to London to established business contacts and obtain fresh production equipment, later setting up Hindustan Cinema Films and going on to make over forty silent features and one talkie. He died in 1944. Harishchandrachi Factory is bound to generate renewed interest in the revered founding father of Indian cinema, whose own history is now almost as much bound up in mythology as the subjects of his pioneering films.

And the winner is…

As promised, we bring you the winner of the Vimeo Weekend Project to produce a silent film. Vimeo, the video-hosting site, has these regular weekend competitions inviting new videos to be uploaded on a particular theme, and this time chose silents. The process seems to be a bit confusing, as many just submitted any kind of video in the hope of getting noticed, while others submitted silent but old videos – not surprising, giving the rapid turnaround demanded by the competition.

The winner, above, is Two Knives One Motive by Tyler Capeheart, who says it was written, shot and edited within four hours. It lasts 3mins 19secs. See what you think.

The standard of some of the silents, both those newly produced and some of the older titles submitted, was higher than I’d expected. The video below would probably have got my vote – Guard Duty, by Andrew C, which makes a droll silent comedy pastiche out of the Call of Duty video game (being ignorant of these things I’ve no idea how one makes a new film out of video game software, but clearly this is second nature to some):

And then among the older titles, I was quite struck with Fleeting by Robin Brown, from 2008. It’s longer than usual, just over 15 minutes, and features black-and-white cinematography of a high order. There is engaging use of intertitles early on and some good performances, though I feel the film doesn’t quite know where to go with its theme, and the music is distracting. But it looks so good (the filmmaker says that his influences included F.W. Murnau):

You can find other titles in the Weekend Project section of Vimeo, though there doesn’t seem to be a link I can give you that will only have those films submitted for the competition. Anyway, good to see the several ways in which the art of the silent film continues to inspire.

Silents for the weekend

Those in the know know that the classiest online video site around is Vimeo. It’s home to the work of budding filmmakers, film school graduates, animators and those for whom YouTube is altogether too low grade. It is not particularly a place where one is going to find silent films, but that may change with its recently-announced Weekend Project on silent films. The site organises occasional Weekend Projects where Vimeo members are encouraged to produced films along a particular theme. This time they are being asked to produce silent films. One of the site’s organisers says says:

Last time I suggested a Weekend Project, it was all about making noise. This week, I’m swinging the pendulum to the opposite side and proposing a Silent Film project. And when I say silent, I mean no sound. At all. This means you’re going to have to make actions, edits, and direction speak for you. You are allowed to use those old-timey slides to show what people are saying and to narrate your story. But remember, silence!

Well, not strictly silence, since the filmmakers are allowed to include music (not songs), with the less than encouraging suggestion that “Cheesy piano music is the way to go if you use music.” Winners will be announced next Friday. I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, the above video by Benjamin VanderVeen exploring the School of Art and Design at Northern Michigan University is held up as a model effort. Hmm.

Projection Box Awards


The winners of the 2008-2009 Projection Box Awards for essays on popular optical media to 1900 have been announced. The first prize of £250 has gone to Professor Erkki Huhtamo for ‘Aeronauticon! Or, the Journey of the Balloon Panorama’, described by the judges as “… an excellent piece of well- documented new research. The essay is packed with exciting ideas … expressed with imaginative, speculative and argumentative flair. There is a clarity throughout and an easy, unpretentious turn of phrase which is delightful to read.”

Second prize goes to Mark Butterworth for ‘Imaging a Continent: the George Washington Wilson & Co’s Lantern Slides of Australia’ and third prize to Dr R.M. Callender for ‘The Enthusiastic Amateur of Redhill, Surrey: John Sterry’.

The competition for 2009-2010 has been announced, as follows (note the extension of popular optical media from 1900 now to 1910):


Open to all, applications now welcomed

First Prize £250
and publication in the journal Early Popular Visual Culture
Books (value £100) as 2nd & 3rd prizes

The aims of this award, now in its third year, are to encourage new research and new thinking into any historical, artistic, or technical aspect of popular optical media to 1910, includingearly cinema: photography: panoramas & dioramas: the magic lantern: shadow theatre: optical toys, and to promote engaging, accessible, and imaginative work.

Essays, of 5000 to 8000 words, may be co-authored. Although the judges welcome international submissions, all essays must be in English. Work must be the author’s own,
and not previously published. Deadline: 30 January 2010 for further details, rules, and application form.

The Projection Box was established 1994 by Stephen Herbert & Mo Heard.
We publish and distribute books and CD-roms on silent film, popular optical media, and visual culture. Current titles at:

Projection Box Awards

Phenakistiscope, from Stephen Herbert’s not-MOMI site

A reminder to you all that entries are welcomed for the 2008-09 Projection Box Essay Awards. Established last year by the UK independent small publisher, The Projection Box, the awards are for essays on a theme relating to historical, artistic or technical aspects of popular optical media. The subject of this year’s competition is Popular Optical Media (to 1900), including nineteenth century photography, Dioramas, Zoetropes, the magic lantern, shadow theatre, panoramas, Victorian cinema, and optical toys.

First prize is £250 and publication in the journal Early Popular Visual Culture (Routledge). Plus book prizes. Last year’s first prize went to Dr John Plunkett for his essay ‘Selling Stereoscopy 1890-1914: penny arcades, automatic machines and American salesmen.’

Submissions are invited for unpublished essays of between 5,000 and 8,000 words. Entry is open to all, and the deadline for entries is 24 January 2009. Full details, including competition rules, are available on the Projection Box Awards site.

(You’ll find not-MOMI (a recreation of parts of the defunct Museum of the Moving Image) at

Urban dreams

Dundas ‘n’ Bathurst, from

It’s good news to be able to report the return of TUFF, the Toronto Urban Film Festival. TUFF is an eight-day public film festival held in Toronto, which features urban-themed one-minute films, all of which have to be silent. Last year’s inaugural festival (reported by the Bioscope) produced some remarkably high quality entries – as an example of which, do take a look at 2007’s overall prize winner, the dazzling Dundas n’ Bathurst (an area of Toronto) by Charuvi Agrawal and Jeffrey Tran, or visit the YouTube site which hosted the 2007 entries.

The festival invites entries covering all genres of film, video, and animation from both trained professional, and untrained amateur, artists and filmmakers. National and international submissions are welcomed. Every entry has to fit in with one of the festival’s themes, which this year are:

* Urban Encounters – the moments that make city-living worthwhile
* Urban Fears – the darker side of living in a metropolis
* Urban Growth – from skyscrapers to suburban sprawl
* Urban Imaginary – hopes for the future of municipalities
* Urban Natural – the living city, both nurtured and oppressed
* Urban Secrets – stories about the hidden or forgotten city
* Urban Travels – from taking public transit to practicing Parkour

As stated, all submissions must be silent and exactly 60 seconds in length. The deadline for submissions is 1 July 2008, and the festival itself runs 5-12 September 2008. Films selected by the jurors for each thematic category will play on Toronto’s network of 250 TTC subway platform screens repeatedly during one day of the festival. All selected films will also be eligible to be posted on the festival website, for viewing and voting throughout the festival, as well as for future viewing. Filmmakers can also opt to have their film added to the TUFF YouTube collection.

Finally, not only is it free to submit, but the filmmakers retain rights, and receive $150 per selected film – $75 for taking part in TUFF on the TTC, and $75 for being a part of the website. Full details of how to enter can be found on the festival website.

What an excellent venture, further evidence of the rude health of the silent film today. I’ll publish more on it at the time of the festival itself.