Tuff times are here again

“emBodying Toronto” by Joyce Wong and Sonia Hong, 1st Place Winner at TUFF 2009

TUFF is the annuel Toronto Urban Film Festival, which has the noble ambition of showing new silent films to the commuters of Toronto. The festival, which takes place 10-19 September 2010, comprises an urban-themed programme of new one-minute silent films, which run repeatedly on the ONESTOP digital network of over 270 platform screens on fifty subway platforms of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) for ten days, reaching 1.3 million daily commuters. The top three films of the festival are chosen by a guest jury and guest judge; this year the judge is director, producer and screenwriter Deepa Mehta. The festival is now in its fourth year.

TUFF films on exhibition on a Toronto subway platform

TUFF is open to Canadian and international submissions by video artists, filmmakers – trained and untrained – animators and ‘urbanites’ with cameras or video-capable mobile devices. Filmmakers are asked to submit one-minute silent videos addressing one of seven themes: Urban Encounters; Urban Diversity; Urban Journeys; Urban Imaginary; Urban Natural; Urban Secrets; and Urban Ideas. Only the leading entrants in each category get to be screened on the TTC, from the hundreds of submissions made each year. The winning videos in each category from 2009 are now available to view on the TUFF site or on the festival’s YouTube channel (including entries from previous years).

The London Project

Next up for Catalogue Month (our survey of online catalogues and databases, selected for inscription in the Bioscope Library) is The London Project. I did write about this in the very early days of the Bioscope, in a very cursory manner, and it is high time that we returned to it. It’s a work I know quite a bit about, since I produced half of it, and it’s something of which I’m quite proud, even if the database has become a little compromised since the time when it was published in 2005, because it has not been possible to update it since. Databases should never be allowed to stand still. It is contrary to their nature.

The London Project database documents the film venues and film businesses to be found in London during the period 1896-1914 – around 1,000 venues and 1,000 businesses all told. It was the major output of a year-long project (2004-05) sponsored by the AHRB Centre for British Film and Television Studies, hosted by Birkbeck, University of London, and managed by Professor Ian Christie. The two researchers were Simon Brown (working on film businesses) and myself (working on cinemas and audiences). As well as the database we produced several essays, conference presentations and a touring exhibition (‘Moving Pictures Come to London’). But the star of the show was the database.

Interior view of Hale’s Tours (a film show set inside a mock train carriage) on London’s Oxford Street, which first opened May 1906

The London Project documents film businesses in London 1896-1914 and film venues (a more inclusive term than cinemas) from the date of the first identifiable cinema in London (The Daily Bioscope, opened May 1906), again to the start of the First World War. The information is taken from a wide range of sources, including film and stage year books, film trade papers, street and business directories, the records of the London County Council, local newspapers, published and unpublished memoirs, police reports and company records. The database allows searching by name of venue or business, address, London borough (as they were pre-1914), by business type (e.g. production, distribution, production, exhibition, venue), and by person (including notes relating to people).

A typical film business record will give you name, address (and any secondary addresses), category and tp of business, original share capital, trading information, the names of directors, and sources. Names and sources are hyperlinked to other records, making the pursuit of such links a fascinating business as you discover that, say, Cecil Hepworth was not only the managing director of the Hepworth Manfacturing Company, but a director of Film Agency (Russia) Ltd. You find all sorts of unexpected additional business interests and alliances in these lists of directors, especially as we chosen to interpret the film business quite broadly and to include equipment manufacturers, cinema uniform suppliers, electrical engineers, vending machine suppliers, musical instrument suppliers, and so on, reflecting the larger picture of what the cinema business really was (as indicated by the lists of such companies provided by the film trade year books of the period).

Film venues covers every sort of entertainment place in London which showed film on a regular basis betwen 1906 and 1914. That means cinemas, of course, but also theatres, music halls, town halls, sports arenas, converted shops, public baths and amusement parlours. The records are not as extensive as those for businesses (more’s the pity) but they do give you name, address, audience capacity, notes, related businesses and people, and sources of information. So it is possible to trace every cinema managed by Montagu Pyke or by Electric Theatres (1908) Ltd, or to pursue every film show surveyed by the Metropolitan Police in 1909 at a time of social alarm at these new dens of vice which allowed the young of either sex to mix unchaperoned in the dark.

The Bioscopic Team Rooms, aka The Circle in the Square, the first true cinema in Leicester Square, opened June 1909

One feature we were particularly pleased with is the map of London boroughs, which allows you to search for businesses and venues in say Chelsea, Wandsworth, Lambeth or Poplar. It was an important part of the project that we were able to connect cinema history to social history and in particular to the many other histories of London. Geographical data is a good way of helping to achieve this, though we had neither the time nor the resources to take this further and use GIS data or mapping software.

Indeed there is much about the database that could do with an update, as new information has come in and there are plenty of corrections that need to be made. And if only we could have added pictures. But the project money ended in 2005 and it has not been possible to add to the database since. It is hosted by Birkbeck, and I hope that the university continues to do so and to maintain the URLs as they are – each individual business and venue has a unique web address with its ID number included in the URL, essential for citation and future reference.

If you want to pursue the project’s work further and look at what we wrote, four of our essays are freely available online (at present):

The London Project website itself has background information on the project and on the London of the 1896-1914 period. The database is a freely-available resource, and even if the website is not being updated there is still an email address on the site to which you can send fresh information. It’s being collected, somewhere, and maybe one day a fresher, more extensive London Project database will emerge, one that might even go beyond 1914 or beyond the confines of London. We can but hope.

The great Londoner

Yesterday an exhibition opened at the London Film Museum, Charlie Chaplin – The Great Londoner. The exhibition promises “insights into the life and career of Charles Chaplin, the boy from the London slums who won universal fame with his screen character of the Tramp, and went on to become a Knight of the British Empire”. Produced by Jonathan Sands and devised by Leslie Hardcastle in collaboration with David Robinson, Chaplin’s biographer, the exhibition is in six sections, described thus:

A London Boyhood
Charles Chaplin was born in 1889 in East Street, Lambeth, and his early years were spent, often in acute poverty, in this square mile to the South and East of the present London Film Museum. This section evokes the life of the poor in late Victorian Lambeth, and the escape provided by the light, colour and fun of the music halls, in which his parents were performers.

A Child of the Theatre
At the age of 10 the young Chaplin found work in a juvenile music hall troupe, and his future was decided. As a boy actor he made his mark as the comic page-boy in Sherlock Holmes, and even played the role in the West End. But his greatest success came in the music hall, and at 20 he was already a star of the Karno comedy companies. This section sets out to recall the atmosphere and the stars of the music halls, with memorabilia relating to Chaplin’s own stage career.

America and the movies
Between 1910 and 1913 Chaplin twice toured the American vaudeville circuits as a star of the Karno company, and was greatly excited by his encounter with the New World. At the end of 1913 he yielded to an offer from the Keystone Comedy Company, ruled by Mack Sennett and arrived in Hollywood. At first disoriented by the new medium, he learned rapidly, and within weeks was directing his own films. The exhibition evokes the buccaneering atmosphere of early Hollywood, its primitive studios, and its rapid evolution towards an international industry.

The Tramp
Searching for a character for his second film, Chaplin put together a costume from elements found in the Keystone wardrobe shed. The result – the Tramp – achieved instant popularity and within a year or two was known and loved across the world. Chaplin’s creation remains to this day the screen’s iconic and most universally recognised character.

Citizen of the World
When Chaplin finally took a rest and visited Europe in 1921, he was astonished to find himself a world celebrity, mobbed by crowds everywhere he went, and sought out by the great men of the day. Increasingly he used his comedy to comment on the fundamental problems of humanity. Modern Times is a broad-ranging social critique; and in The Great Dictator, having finally abandoned his character of the Tramp, he pillories Adolf Hitler, fascinated by the physical resemblance between the best-loved man in the world and the most hated.

The Happy Exile
In the paranoia of the Cold War years, Chaplin became an object of suspicion to the Communist-obsessed American political right. His anti-war statements in Monsieur Verdoux and his friendships with liberal intellectuals led to increasingly virulent attacks and accusations of Communist sympathies. In 1952 he came to England for the premiere of his last American film, Limelight (a recollection of the London music halls of his youth) never permanently to return to the United States. His final years were spent contentedly in Switzerland, surrounded by his growing family and still planning films, two of which, A King In New York and A Countess from Hong Kong, were made in Britain.

This is good news, and the exhibition will also become part of the permanent museum display. But what’s the London Film Museum, eh? Last time I looked there wasn’t one. The Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI) sadly closed in 1999, and in 2008 an odd and seemingly short-term attraction with the ungainly title of The Movieum appeared on the South Bank as part of the popular attractions based in the former County Hall complex. It didn’t look like it would last long or offer much.

Bu the Movieum has turned out to have more staying power and ambition towards being a genuine commemoration and repository for moving image heritage than one might have supposed. It has been rebranded as the London Film Museum (strictly speaking, the London Film Museum now incorporates the Movieum), at the same location, and the first expression of its new status is the Chaplin exhibition. And, as some will know, Leslie Hardcastle was one of the presiding geniuses behind MOMI, so to have his approval of the new venture is significant indeed. We shall watch these developments with interest.

Going to the show


Postcard of the Bijou, Wilmington, N.C., 1914, from Going to the Show

Though there are some who would deny it, cinema history involves the history of cinemas. The study of a medium that ignores the social form in which it has been consumed is a blinkered one, yet sadly so much of film studies exists in just such state of denial. Happily there has been a concerted effort by a dedicated band of academics in recent years to investigate cinema-going as an integral part of cinema history. Inspired in the first place by Douglas Gomery’s Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie in the United States (1992), the school uses socio-historial tools to analyse the experience of movie-going through patterns of audience types (age, gender, race, class), venue locations, social mobility, transportation links, purchasing power, leisure time and competing attractions. The significant output from such investigations has become the database which maps and documents particular territories. We’ve already had Cinema Context for the Netherlands and the London Project for the early film business in London. Now we have Going to the Show for North Carolina, 1896-1930.

This is a fabulous resource. It is going to make many other places wish that they had something much the same. Going to the Show “documents and illuminates the experience of movies and moviegoing in North Carolina from the introduction of projected motion pictures (1896) to the end of the silent film era (circa 1930)”. At its heart are 750 Sanborn Fire Insurance maps of forty-five towns and cities in North Carolina between 1896 and 1922 that locate film venues within general urban life. All of these are mapped to a database (a welcome feature for the specialist is that not only are all the database fields explained but the database relationship diagram is given) to which have been added photographs, postcards, newspaper clippings, architectural drawings, advertisements and more. It totals over 1,300 film venues across two hundred communities.


Film venues marked on Sanborn fire insurance map for Burlington, N.C.

As said, Going to the Show is based around fire insurance maps, and gives this explanation of their provenance and use:

From 1867 to 1977, the Sanborn® Map Company of Pelham, New York, produced large-scale (usually 50 feet to the inch) color maps of commercial and industrial districts of some 12,000 towns and cities in North America to assist fire insurance companies in setting rates and terms. Each set of maps represented each built structure in those districts, its use, dimensions, height, building material, and other relevant features (fire alarms, water mains and hydrants, for example). The intervals between new map editions for a given town or city in the early decades of the twentieth century varied according to the pace and scale of urban growth — from a few years to more than five years. In all, Sanborn® produced 50,000 editions comprising some 700,000 individual map pages. Because almost all early movie theaters were repurposed from an existing retail space located in the commercial heart of a town or city, they appear on thousands of Sanborn® map pages after 1906. Larger, purpose-built theaters were included in later Sanborn® maps.

Going to the Show takes these precise records of film venues and marries them to Google Maps, with all the familiar tools of zoom-in, zoom-out, scan across and marking of venues with hyperlinks to further information. But it is the range of extra information that makes Going to the Show so powerful. Map searches can be refined by year, venues and period in which the venue was active, while you can select whether to view modern or historical map with an opacity slider, and bring in current street names. Each venue is marked with a Ticket icon, which links you to additional information.


New Bern, N.C. shown through modern Google map and Sanborn fire insurance map, pinpointng the Dixie Theatre 1913-1918 catering for African American audiences only

A major aspect of the research has been the racial division of film venues. Keen to demonstrate how race conditioned the experience of movie-going for all North Carolinians – white, African American and American Indian – the resource extends beyond the silent era to document every known African American film venue in North Carolina operational between 1908 and 1963.

What distinguishes Going to the Show is its attention to database searching and presentation. The faceted browse option shows how you can refine searches by item type (Architectural Drawing, City Directory, Commentary, Illustration, Newspaper, Organization, Overlay Map, Periodical, Person, Photograph, Postcard, Typescript, Venue),
location (by City, County or Region), venue name, date (allowing for searching by decade), and keyword or tag (including such useful terms as admission price, boxing films, children, fire, influenza, penny arcade, racial policy, religious objection and separate entrance). The tag ‘notable’ leads you to some of the choice items, such as this 1897 press notice saying that owing to the popularity of the Edison Projectoscope at the Wilmington Opera House that the dress circle will be reserved for “colored citizens”:


Wilmington Star, 20 March 1897

And there’s more. Robert C. Allen, James Logan Godfrey Distinguished Professor of American Studies, History, and Communications Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the presiding genius behind Going to the Show, has produced an eye-catching timeline for Wilmington, N.C., chronicling and commenting upon twenty-six venues from 1897 to the end of racial segregation in 1954. Business papers from this period are a rarity, and another very welcome feature is the Joyland Theatre Ledger, the manager’s ledger from 28 September 1910, to 14 January 1911, including expenses and ticket receipts.


Going to the Show is handsomely and sensibly presented. It merits detailed study. It has been produced as one of a number of University of North Carolina digital resources under the title Documenting the South. It ought to be the springboard for much further research, not simply within film/cinema studies, but as part of that general social history of which film history needs to be a part. This is the point – that so much of film history speaks only to those who know about film. It constricts itself to a narrow field by not speaking the language that is natural to other disciplines. I’ve mentioned at a couple of conferences what for me is the shocking case of G.R. Searle’s A New England? Peace and War 1886-1918 (2005), part of the New Oxford History of England. This 951-page magisterial history builds on new research in the areas of social, cultural, ecnomic and political history, yet among all those 951 pages just one throwaway paragraph is devoted to cinema. The bibliographic essay notes the extensive work done in music hall and sport history, but has nothing on cinema at all. Film historians – and in this case particularly British film historians – simply aren’t writing in a language than anyone else recognises, or cares about. The situation is better in America, as the work of Gomery, Allen, Garth Jowett and others indicates, but much much more remains to be done. Moreover, such moviegoing studies as there are often tend to get subsumed within concerns about spectatorship – handy enough in itself, but still making the audience subservient to the film. For discussion on this issues, read Richard Maltby’s essay for Screening the Past, ‘How Can Cinema History Matter More?‘, the title of which rather sums it up. To read about some of the other projects worldwide which are investigating cinema-going, see the HOMER website (History of Moviegoing, Exhibition, and Reception).

To understand the phenomenon of film, of course we need to appreciate it as an art form, but we must ask those basic questions how, where and when motion pictures were consumed, and to see their world as integral to a wider social world. Datasets and databases don’t answer everything by themselves, but they provide the foundations for thinking about the right answers. Going to the Show points the way.


Robert C. Allen would welcome any feedback from Bioscope readers. You can email him at rallen [at] email.unc.edu.

A silent stroll through London

At the recent British Silent Film Festival a walk was organised for delegates around some of central London’s early film sites. With the kind permission of the walk’s organiser and guide, Ian Christie, the Bioscope is able to reproduce his notes, and encourages you (should you be in London) to follow in these footsteps. The contemporary pictures are by Matthew Lloyd. The text is followed by a review of the walk from Kelly Robinson, to whom my thanks for suggesting the idea for this post. Hyperlinks in bold are to map references. Happy trails.

(Very) Early Film Sites in Central London


1. We start in Leicester Square, beside the Chaplin statue (John Doubleday, 1981) and the Shakespeare monument (copied from Westminster Abbey, 1874), looking around the perimeter, first at the Empire (1884), site of the first Lumière Cinématographe run in Spring 1896; also at the site of the Alhambra music hall (1858) where R.W. Paul ran a competing show featuring his ‘Animatograph’, also starting in 1896 (image from http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk). Paul also shot his first fiction film on the roof of the Alhambra. The Odeon West End opened in 1930 as one of the new sound-era cinemas (refurbished 1968) and the flagship Odeon Leicester Square opened in 1937, and remains London’s leading ‘red carpet’ venue.

Into Leicester Place, north of main square, to look at French Catholic Church, Notre Dame de France, first built in 1865 on site of Robert Mitchell’s 1793-4 Panorama. Look north into Lisle Street, where De Loutherbourg ran the Eidophusikon in February 1781, described as ‘Moving pictures, representing phenomena of nature’. Review of Leicester Square history and entertainments since 18th century.

2. Out of Square at bottom, across Charing Cross Road, into Cecil Court once known as ‘Flicker Alley’, when it housed many early film companies, from 1897 to 1910 (detailed list in Simon Brown’s article, in Film Studies no. 10).

3. From Cecil Court, right into St Martin’s Lane, towards Trafalgar Square – noting location from which Wordsworth Donisthorpe shot frames of film in 1890.


Cecil Court and Trafalgar Square today

4. Then left into the Strand, to the site of Edison’s Kinetoscope parlour, opened on left of Adelphi Theatre in 1895 (not current Adelphi building).

5. Next to Adelphi Theatre, the Hotel Cecil, where W.K.L. Dickson lived from 1897 until his departure for South Africa.

6. 64 Strand, where Dickson had his first lab, c.1903; and the site of the Tivoli Music Hall then Theatre, 65-70 Strand – which eventually became a cinema where the Film Society first met in the 1920s, but had the Biograph studio behind it in 1897.


A postcard for the Tivoli Theatre, sent in 1908, from http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk, and the site where the Tivoli stands today

7. We turn off the Strand and head up through Covent Garden, noting site Jury’s Imperial Pictures, 142 Long Acre. Then on to St Giles Circus and crossroads of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Sreet, to site of the Horse Shoe Hotel where the Kinetoscope launch dinner was held on 17 October 1894 (copy of the menu in the Bill Douglas Centre collection).

8. Then along Oxford Steet, looking out for no. 70, the original London Kinetoscope parlour, and the site of Hales Tours of the World, at 165 Oxford Street, from 1906.

9. We turn back into Wardour Street and identifying a series of sites associated with Charles Urban and other British pioneer producers and distributors. At the bottom of Wardour Street, we note Gerrard Street, another site of early companies such as Cricks and Martin), and Birt Acres’ Kineopticon, at 2 Piccadilly Mansions (“Britain’s first cinema” in 1896), also the Biograph offices nearby at 18-19 Great Windmill Street and Rupert and Denman Streets, where many early film businesses were based (see London Project website at http://londonfilm.bbk.ac.uk)


W.K.L. Dickson’s lab in Denman Street, image courtesy of Paul Spehr

10. Then back up Shaftesbury Avenue to Cambridge Circus, where the Palace Theatre was first the home of Biograph exhibition, then of Urban’s Kinemacolor.


The Palace Theatre in the early 1900s, from http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk

11. Finally, we finish in the Montagu Pyke public house, named after the early London cinema entrepreneur (and much else besides!).

Ian Christie
Birkbeck College – London Screen Study Collection, The London Project www.ianchristie.org

After apprehensively checking the weather forecast every day leading up to the walk we were all delighted that despite thunderstorms in the early morning it had cleared and the sun was shining. Ian Christie, our expert guide, had unfortunately various noises to contend with at the beginning including loud speakers at the Chaplin statue in Leicester Square, blaring all manner of strange sounds directly at us, and bells chiming at St Martin in the Fields. However, the walk was a delight – uncovering a hidden layer of London’s history that many of us were unaware of, including a Cocteau mural in the French Catholic Church in Leicester Place. It was a particular delight to imagine Cecil Court as ‘Flicker Alley’ a hustling and bustling street of film-related businesses before a fire encouraged relocation. With added impromptu contributions from W.K.L. Dickson’s biographer Paul Spehr and silent film historian and filmmaker Kevin Brownlow, the day was a spectacular treat. Down Wardour Street the gathering clouds could hold off no longer and we fought a torrential downpour. Luckily we were nearing the end of our walk and the Montagu Pyke pub our final destination and named after the rogue cinema entrepreneur. I’m looking forward to visiting these streets again and recollecting Ian’s anecdotes; my perception of London has certainly been transformed. Many thanks to Ian Christie and Bryony Dixon.

Kelly Robinson


British silent film enthusiasts on their walking tour of London, 7 June 2009. Photograph courtesy of Christian Hayes

Roll away the reel world



2009 sees the centenary of one of the odder corners of early film history. In December 1909, the then unknown James Joyce, future author of Dubliners, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, opened a cinema in Dublin. This was through no particular passion for film; Joyce was merely seeking the means to get rich quick, and like a good many other people at the time, he saw the new cinema business as the way to do so. Cinemas were springing up all over Europe, and in Trieste – where Joyce was based – he had fallen in with a group of cinema owners, to whom he sold the idea of a city in Europe which had a half a million inhabitants, and yet not a single cinema. That city was Dublin, and although recent research indicates that there probably were one or two cinemas in Dublin at that time (and numerous film shows not in cinemas as such), Joyce’s business partners were interested enough to send him across to Dublin to establish the Volta Cinematograph.

Happily for literature, Joyce turned out to be a hopeless cinema manager, or rather he left the business all too quickly in other hands, only to see the hoped-for source of his fortune rapidly fail. The Volta (which was located at 45 Mary Street) floundered, as much through competition from other film entertainments as its own mismanagement, and it was sold at a loss in June 1910. Joyce’s own specific involvement with the cinema was brief, but intense. He spent several weeks setting up the business, staffing and equipping, promoting it, obtaining a cinematograph licence, and – it is to be assumed – selecting the films.

It is this last element that continues to attract scholarly interest. What films were shown at the Volta, what role did Joyce play in their selection, what did he think of such films, and what traces of the cinema can be uncovered in his art? These questions are all to be covered in in a two-day conference organised by the Trieste Joyce School and the Alpe Adria Film Festival, entitled ‘Roll away the reel world’: James Joyce e il Cinema, to be held 15-16 January 2009 at the Sala Tessitori of the “Consiglio della Regione Friuli Venezia Giulia, piazza Oberdan, 5, Trieste, Italy.


Le Huguenot (Gaumont 1909 d. Louis Feuillade), shown at the Volta 24-26 January 1910

Speakers include Luke McKernan (yours truly), who will introduce a programme of films known to have been shown at the Volta and give a talk, ‘James Joyce and the Volta Programme’, Eric Schneider (‘Dedalus among the film folk’), Maria di Battista (‘The Ghost Walks: Joyce and the spectres of silent cinema’), Louis Armand (‘Joyce and Godard’), Jesse Meyers (‘James Joyce, Contemporary Screenwriter?’), Cleo Hannaway (‘”See ourselves as others see us”: Cinematic Ways of Seeing and Being in Ulysses’), Marco Camerani (‘Circe, Fregoli and Cinema’), Carla Marengo Vaglio (‘Joyce, between futurist music-hall and cinema’), Philip Sicker (‘Mirages in the Lampglow: Joyce’s “Circe” and Méliès’s Dream Cinema’), Katy Mullin (‘Joyce, Early Cinema and the Erotics of Everyday Life’), Davide Maschio (‘On Bute’s Finnegans Wake’), and Keith Williams (‘Odysseys of Sound and Image: “Cinematicity” and the Ulysses Adaptations’).

Added to all that, the Alpe Adria Film Festival, or Trieste Film Festival, is hosting a retrospective on Joyce and cinema, running 15-22 January, co-ordinated by Elisabetta D’Erme; and there is to be an exhibition, entitled Trieste, Joyce and Cinema: A History of Possible Worlds curated by Erik Schneider, tracing the connections between Joyce’s imaginative world, the city, and the cinema. For further information on the conference, which is free of charge and open to all, contact Professor John McCourt at mccourt [at] units.it, or visit the Trieste Joyce School site for the programme details.

Pordenone diary 2008 – day seven

Alexander Shiryaev (1867-1941) is not a name that you will find in any film history. He was a member of the Russian Imperial Ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, a protégé of the great choreographer Marius Petipa, a character dancer of great skill (he was too small for the classic leading roles), and a gifted ballet teacher.

It was his teaching that seems to have led Shiryaev to film. Fascinated with human movement and the notation of ballet, Shiryaev began producing sequential drawings of dance steps that documented the minutiae of such movements, work that was inherently cinematic in construction. Shiryaev must have seen the connection, because in 1904 he applied to the theatre management to let him purchase a motion picture camera and film to record the dancers of the ballet. He was turned down – no films were allowed to be made of the dancers of the Imperial Ballet. Undaunted, Shiryaev purchased a camera anyway – a 17.5mm Biokam acquired in London, to be followed by an Ernemann Kino, also employing 17.5mm film. At some point he also had used of a 35mm camera.

Shiryaev took to filming as one who instinctively knew what the medium could do. He understood the camera as he understood dance. Between 1906 and 1909, Shiryaev produced an astonishing body of work – live records of dances, home movies, comedies, trick films, animations and puppet films. None of these was seen in public. They might have disappeared from history entirely, had they not first been narrowly saved from destruction in the 1960s by a friend of Shiryaev’s, Daniil Saveliev, and then discovered again in 1995 by filmmaker Victor Bocharov, who has been their custodian ever since. Bocharov produced a documentary on the collection in 2003, Zapazdavshaya Premiera (Belated Premiere), but the screenings at Pordenone were the true public premiere for the majority of these films, many of which came fresh from the specialist labs of PresTech in London.

The Shiryaev films were shown over a number of days, the programmes including A Belated Premiere and films related to his world, such as Anna Pavlova dancing. But the main programme came on Friday 10 October, and divided up his ouevre into four categories.

Dance films
These were films of Shiryaev and his dancer wife Natalia Matveeva dancing on a sunlit stage at their Ukraine home. As the only films of the Russian ballet greats at this time, they have plain historical value, but they are also a visual delight. The two dance singly or together in a selection of folk-based dances, performed with sparkling zest, and each ending delightfully with the dancer leaving the stage then returning for a bow. The most dazzling are those on 35mm, particularly Shiryaev’s party piece, ‘Fool’s Dance’ from Petipa’s Mlada.

Trick films
Shiryaev was evidently a film-goer himself, and decided to emulate some of the trick films common in the mid-1900s. All were again filmed at his summer home, in the open air. One film where a giant spider came down and settled on a sleeping man was clearly inspired by Georges Méliès’ Une nuit terrible. Another, given the title [Chairs], anticipated Norman McLaren’s Neighbours by some fifty years, with its stop-animation of humans seated on chairs and swapping positions.

Earlier in the week we had seen numerous fleeting home movies of Shiryaev and family (they are some of the earliest surviving home movies anywhere) and various staged comedies made by the family. The marvellous thing to behold was how the boundaries between home movies, comedies and then trick films blurred, all created in the same spirit of joyous performance. The family’s whole lives seemed to be some form of dance.

Paper films
For me, Shiryaev’s paper ‘films’ were his greatest achievement. Before he had a camera (or so it is assumed), he produced animations on paper (45mm wide) which have now been reconstituted on film. One such film with delicate line showed birds in flight, the observant results of which the festival catalogue rightly pointed out connected his quest for reconstituted movement with that of the chronophotographers Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey. But finest I think was [Cakewalk], a trio of dancers in exquisite, gently swaying unison. Only a minute or so long, but I have never seen a finer piece of animation.

Shiryaev’s puppet animation P’ero-Khudozhniki (Artist Pierrots), from http://www.watershed.co.uk

Puppet films
For David Robinson, the festival’s director and a most enthusiastic advocate of Shiryaev’s work, the stop-frame puppet films he made were his greatest achievement. They were certainly the most astonishing. Years ahead of animation elsewhere in the world (and two or three years ahead of Starewitch), these films used puppet figures in a theatre set to recreate, in meticulous detail, actual ballet dancers. Some of the effects – such a water or paint being thrown, or balls being tossed in the air – were astonishingly accomplished, and simply the co-ordination of several puppets all dancing at the same time would have required prodigious patience and skill. One of the films indeed revealed the animator’s hands to the edge of the frame, moving manically into a mysterious blur.

The puppet films required some concentration on the part of the audience, particularly the 12-minute-long [Harlequin’s Jest], which was in five acts with long titles (supplied by Bocharov) explaining the action. What helped enormously was the music. We know that Shiryaev meant his films to be so accompanied, including the animations, but not what that music was. John Sweeney, one of the festival’s core band of pianists, took on the task of matching music (some from Petipa ballets, some his own) to the films, with Günter Buchwald joining him on violin for [Harlequin’s Jest]. The brilliant results were rightly given loud acclaim by the audience – the musical highlight of the festival.

We will certainly be hearing more about Alexander Shiryaev. The documentary A Belated Premiere gets its British premiere at the Watershed in Bristol on 19 November (nearby Aardman Animation has been involved in supporting the restoration of Shiryaev’s work), and with the restoration of the films as yet incomplete (some we saw only on DVD), it’s a certainty that there will be more on show at Pordenone.

Friday was a day for superlatives. In the morning we had seen more of the Corrick collection of early films collected by a family of entertainers in 1900s Australia. Now, having written my thesis on Charles Urban (right), published a website about him, and taken my blog nom de plume from his company logo, it might be argued that I could be a little biased when it comes to praising his works, but – damn it all – Living London, made by the Charles Urban Trading Company, if it isn’t one of the greatest of all silent films, then it is undoubtedly the greatest film of 1904 [update: the film has now been identified as Urban’s The Streets of London (1906)]. The film is an eleven-minute section from an original forty-minute documentary (no other word will do) depicting London life. Moving approximately eastwards (from Westminster to the City, with a diversion along the Thames), the film shows the metropolis at its imperial zenith, vividly alive, with cameras picking out every detail, high and low (the trouble taken over camera positions was particularly noticeable) – traffic, roadworks, people dancing in the street, workers of every kind, buildings under construction, the river teeming with craft, even in one shot a row of men with sandwich boards advertising Urbanora film shows. The catalogue compared it to Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera or Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, but this was a work of a different kind, a sort of missing link between the single-shot actualities of the early cinema period and the constructed documentary. I can think of few other films that can so thrill with a plain exposition of ‘reality’.

The Corrick collection yielded other gems. Particularly noteworthy were Bashful Mr Brown (1907), a chase comedy made by the Corrick’s themselves; Babylas vient d’hériter diune panthère (1911), pure surrealism from Alfred Machin as an inquisitive leopard is introduced into a bourgeois household; and The Miner’s Daughter (1907), an exercise in beautifully judged pathos from Britain’s James Williamson, in which the title character parts from her father when she marries an artist, and after much grief they are finally brought together by his granddaughter. And it’s a rare early film that combines a mine explosion with scenes inside the Royal Academy.

After the highs of Shiryaev we relaxed in front of Ihr Dunkler Punkt (1929), a typically professional vehicle for Germany’s favourite Briton, Lilian Harvey, who played two identical people, one an ordinary young woman about town, the other a jewel thief, whose lives and lovers get mixed up. A light but cleverly made concoction, in which I most liked the comic turn by the normally sombre Warwick Ward, another Briton who plied his trade in German films.

Michael Nyman takes his bow

I was tiring just a little of films by this stage, and chosen not to follow D.W. Griffith into the sound era with Abraham Lincoln (1930). Instead I concluded my Pordenone with the evening screenings of A Propos de Nice (1930) and Kino Pravda no. 21 (1925). A large crowd of Pordenone locals queued up for this, and the theatre was filled up to its third tier. How come? Because Michael Nyman was playing the piano, and Italians, it seems, love his music. Nyman had been due to play at the festival last year, but had to withdraw owing to illness, so did the honourable thing by turning up this year. Despite his star status, Nyman found himself in the pit the same as all the other musicians during the festival, with the result that no one saw him until he emerged for his bow at the end. A Propos de Nice came first, and Nyman’s complexly repetitive music provided the ideal match for Vigo’s cumulative montage of telling images. It was certainly quite different to anything else we heard during the week, a lesson in how we should always be encouraging different musical interpretations of silent films. Particularly striking were sequences with a single bass note pounded with a rapidity that seemed to be testing the piano’s stamina to the limit.

The Kino Pravda, a celebrated example of the series, on the death of Lenin, was less successful. The film itself, with its hectoring, fractured style, combining newsfilm with slogans and animation, probably defies most forms of musical accompaniment, and Nyman’s score churned out circular themes that didn’t much connect with the film. The score lacked the inspiration of A Propos de Nice, and the film ended a few bars before he did, so that he was being applauded while still trying to finish playing. Opinion afterwards was mixed, with some of the musicologists among the Giornate regulars in shock.

And that was it for me. I left early on the Saturday, the last day of the festival, and so missed Griffith’s final film The Struggle (1931) (touchingly paired with a re-showing of his first, The Adventures of Dollie) and the grand finale of Jacques Feyder’s Les Nouveaux Messieurs (1929). This was a fine festival. Few outstanding classics, but so much to interest, stimulate, challenge and excite the imagination. There were welcome innovations, such as the electronic subtitles, and encouraging signs of closer relations between town and festival. The Giornate del Cinema Muto never rests on its laurels, recognising the broad and knowledgable audience that it attracts, and that in a real way Pordenone is silent film today. It sets the agenda; it builds up the canon; it consistently reminds us of how various the silent film was (and continues to be – there were some examples of modern silent shorts, though none that I saw were terribly distinguished). Warm thanks to all who make the festival such a success year after year. We’re so lucky that it’s there.

‘Til next year.

Pordenone diary 2008 – day one
Pordenone diary 2008 – day two
Pordenone diary 2008 – day three
Pordenone diary 2008 – day four
Pordenone diary 2008 – day five
Pordenone diary 2008 – day six

London loves silents

Trafalgar Square screening, 2007

A reminder to anyone in London on 23 or 24 October of the free open-air evening screenings taking place in Trafalgar Square. On the 23rd, starting at 18.30, you can see the British science fiction silent High Treason (1929) – “the British Metropolis” – directed by Maurice Elvey and starring Basil Gill and Benita Hume, with live piano accompaniment by Neil Brand. A fun film to catch, showing a London where we were to be travelling about the city in helicopters, communicating by television, and wearing dodgy fashions. The accompanying short is Gaston Quiribet’s trick film vision of a future London, The Fugitive Futurist (1924).

On the 24th, also at 18.30, there’s a programme of fifteen archive films under the title ‘London Loves’. Among the silents in the programme are the bizarre The Smallest Car in the Largest City in the World (1913), a long-time favourite of those at the BFI National Archive, in which a miniature Cadillac drives sedately down London’s streets; news footage of Charlie Chaplin’s return to London in 1921, with esctatic greetings from the crowds; and an evocative travelogue, London’s Contrasts (1924). The star attraction, however, is going to be Living London (1904), Charles Urban’s truly dazzling documentary portrait of London life, a 10-minute epic only recently rediscovered by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia and shown earlier this month at the Pordenone silent film festival. It returns to London after 104 years, and on the big screen, in that location, the impact should be tremendous. Among the sound films, look out especially for John Krish’s masterpiece of poignant regret, The Elephant Will Never Forget (1953), on the last trams in London – until they bring them back again, of course. Music will be provided by three musicians, names as yet unpublicised.

The screenings, organised by Film London and the London Film Festival, follow on from last year’s highly successful showing of Blackmail and a programme of archive shorts. It was a magical experience – not just seeing the films in such an extraordinary yet somehow rightful setting, but for the experience of audience watching. Some settled on the steps of the Square and took in every frame; some stopped by for a while to catch the experience before moving on; some paused briefly, on their way to catch a train, puzzled at what on earth was happening. Neil’s music pounded out, down the streets and over the rooftops, filling the evening air, drawing in people from all around to see what strange activity the capital was up to now. Film was bound up with the life of the city. An experience to savour.

Pordenone diary 2008 – day two

Outside the Teatro Comunale Giuseppe Verdi

Before launching into what we saw on Sunday 5 October at the Giornate del Cinema Muto, a word of praise for one particular innovation. Pordenone shows prints from around the world, which arrive in a multiplicity of languages featured on the intertitles. For years we have benefitted from the skills of translators viewing the prints as we did and providing instant translations through headphones. This year the headphones were gone. In their place we had computer-generated subtitles immediately below the screen. If the film was in English, the subtitles appeared in Italian, and vice versa; if it was in any other language, we got subtitles in both Italian and English. The amount of preparatory work must have been prodigious, but the result was a hugely improved viewing experience. Warm thanks are due to all those who made this possible, and everyone’s hearts went out to whoever had translated all of the 160 minutes of the Norwegian film Laila in English, only to discover that the print came with English titles…

This innovation went hand-in-hand with a welcome emphasis on bilingual presentation generally. In Giornates past it has felt as though English speakers were taking over, which must have been greatly trying for the Italians in the audience. Now most (if not all) spoken introductions were translated from one language or the other. One or two speakers need to know when to take a break to give the poor translator a chance to recap, while one speaker was perhaps unnerved by the translator and stopped speaking in mid-sentence, leaving the translator with an impossible task. But we’re getting there.

The day started for me (earlier risers had caught the French film Triplepatte) with two mindboggling Baby Peggy shorts, Such is Life (1924) and Carmen Junior (1923). Child star Baby Peggy (played by Diana Serra Carey, ninety years old next month) is beyond rational criticism. These bizarre films give every appearance of having been made up as they went along. A surreal sequence in Such is Life where an unexplained living snowman melted through a street grill was memorable, but had no logical connection with anything around it (the story was based on ‘The Little Match Girl’, though feisty Peggy wasn’t about to do pathos).

Ever since 1997 the Giornate has been working its way chronologically through the works of D.W. Griffith. This year we reached the end of the journey. The films of Griffith’s last working years are generally dismissed as the embarrassing efforts of an out-of-date man in his creative dotage – at least, those such as me who hadn’t actually seen them believed this. I wasn’t alone in such assumptions, and the astonished (well, pleasantly surprised) rediscovery of Griffith’s late films was one of the major points of the festival. We started with Sally of the Sawdust (1925). This is a comedy-drama of a circus performer (Carol Dempster), whose mother was thrown out by her parents when she married a man from the circus and who has fallen under the care of entertainer Eustace McGargle (W.C. Fields). What surprised about Sally of the Sawdust was its general competence. That sounds like a dreadful thing to say about the man who established the art of directing films, but by this period in his career one had sensed that he was wilfully opposed to the ways in which studio-dominated cinema was evolving. But for the most part Sawdust is pleasingly competent. It ticks along nicely. Fields is outstanding – in complete command of the screen from his very first shot. We even get to see him juggle. Dempster is, inevitably, annoying and she puts on all her girlish mannerisms (it’s an oddity of the film that she seems far too old for such faux-teenage mannersims, though she was only twenty-three when the film was made). Yet even she surprised in a house party scene where is dresses up glamorously and gives a hint of a quite different, and alluring presence, which she might more profitably have returned to. There was also a touching scene where she dances in the way her mother used to for the woman she does not realise is her grandmother. Unfortunately, Griffith’s control fails him towards the end of the film, with his taste for old glories taking over as we have two prolonged chases, one with Dempster, one with Fields, which are poorly executed and fail to intertwine as they should have done, ending with a casual resolution of the plot that lets the audience down. But there were signs of promise, and better was to come.

Included in the catch-all ‘Rediscoveries’ strand were four Max Linder films. Of these Max Toréador (1913) was remarkable for its prolonged scenes filmed in a bullring in Barcelona with Max himself in the middle with the other toreadors genuinely taking part in the bullfighting. It was no surprise to learn that different prints exist with scenes cut according to local sensibilities – the film did not shy from showing the ‘sport’ in all its bloody cruelty. Rather more enjoyable was The Three-Must-Get-Theres (1922), a goofy parody of Douglas Fairbanks in The Three Musketeers. The try-a-bit-of-everything humour was variable, but the film gleefully sent up the Fairbanks self-satisfaction and panache, laced with a string of anachronistic gags (motorbikes instead of horses, that sort of thing). Max remains one of the geniuses of the silent cinema, a poetic blending of opposites – graceful air with a penchant for pratfalls; debonair confidence with always just a touch of panic in his eyes.

One of the festivals themes was filmmaking in New York, tied in with Richard Koszarski’s new book, Hollywood on Hudson. The films chosen were an odd mish-mash, none odder nor mish-mashier than His Nibs (1920-21), directed by Gregory La Cava. Starring obscure comedian Chic Sale (whose gentle comic style suggests he might be worth investigating further, if more films exist), the film was made out of what was going to be a conventional drama, The Smart Aleck. At some point someone realised that the film wasn’t working, and decided to build another film around it. So we get a film about a cinema show, with Sale playing multiple parts, including a crusty projectionist. The audience settles down to watch the film-within-a-film, now called He Fooled ‘Em All (starring Sale and Colleen Moore), with commentary from the projectionist in the intertitles to prevent the audience from reading out the titles. The projectionist also tells us that he cut out a train journey from the film, because those scenes all look the same, plus some mushy stuff at the end. So some good laughs at the expense of cinema, and an intriguing portrait of a small town film show, but a minor oddity overall.

The highlight of the day – indeed one of the highlights of the week – was quite unexpected. On 28 December 1908 the Messina Straits off Sicily was at the epicentre of a huge earthquake. It was probably the biggest earthquake in Europe ever experienced; around 200,000 died in the region, with Messina itself having its population reduced to just a few hundred. We saw how film responded to this tragedy, through three actualities and two fiction films. The first actuality, from an unknown producer, had the greatest effect – aided by Stephen Horne’s eerie music (starting with solo flute before turning to piano). Each shot framed people within the ruins of the city to haunting effect. There was a profound sense of a shock, a dawning realisation of what had just happened. A Pathé news report showed us more, while a Cines film showed us the town being rebuilt in 1910. An Ambrosio drama, L’Orfanella di Messina (1909) depicted a couple who had lost their daughter to illness adopting an orphan girl from Messina, simple yet deeply touching. Finally, and oddly, there was a Coco comedy in which the comedian imagined himself caught up in the earthquake, with collapsing walls and floors in his bedroom. In this simple package of films, we saw how film was used to report on and to help people come to terms with what the country had been through. The sequence moved us all.

The Orchestra della Scuola Media Centro Storico di Pordenone, a school orchestra, was given the chance to show its mettle, accompanying Buster Keaton’s One Week (whose inventiveness greatness put the middling efforts of other comedies seen during the day into context) and three cartoons. Heavy on the recorders and percussion, but good accompaniment for all that, with spot-on sound effects. And further evidence of the growing bonds between community and festival.

The Golf Specialist, from criterioncollection.blogspot.com

The evening’s screening kicked off with a sound film: W.C. Fields in The Golf Specialist (1930). The Fields theme was a bit of an opportunisitc one, probably chosen because some of his silents turned up in the Griffith and New York strands. The film is a classic, of course, and it was good to have it as a point to which his silent films were pointing. It’s a variety sketch in which Fields chaotically fails to demonstrate his golf skills, which tangling with children, animals and sticky paper with progressive absurdity. Delicious cynicism is on view, though there could be more of Fields’ sardonic view of the world and a little less of the golfing calamities.

After a modern Romanian silent short on climate change, whose logic eluded me, we had The Show Off (1926), directed by Mal St Clair. Part of the New York strand (it was filmed at Paramount’s Astoria studios), it starred the ever unappealing Ford Sterling (the Keystone star that Chaplin famously supplanted) in a relatively straight role. This had some cultural-historical fascination in its picture of office life and suburban aspiration, with Sterling playing all too accurately a vain and selfish social failure. Somehow he becomes aware of the unhappiness of other people about him and implausibly saves the day. Had Fields been given the part, we might have had a film of note. As it was we had a minor work of academic interest, its most diverting feature being Louise Brooks as the girlfriend of Sterling’s brother-in-law, looking for all the world as though she had glided in from a different planet.

Look out for Day Three, where we will encounter hands, feet, Satan, puppets and a strongman on his holidays.

Pordenone diary 2008 – day one
Pordenone diary 2008 – day three
Pordenone diary 2008 – day four
Pordenone diary 2008 – day five
Pordenone diary 2008 – day six
Pordenone diary 2008 – day seven

Bioscope Newsreel no. 6

Silents at the LFF
The London Film Festival takes place 15-30 October, and a number of silents are included in the ‘Treasures from the Archives’ strand: Fedor Ozep’s The Living Corpse (1928-29), Douglas Fairbanks in A Modern Musketeer (1917) paired with Max Davidson in the immortal Pass the Gravy (1928), and William Desmond Taylor’s The Soul of Youth (1920). Read more.

London Loves
Part of the London Film Festival is London Loves, a repeat of last year’s hugely successful open-air screenings of silents and archive films in Trafalgar Square. On 23 October Maurice Elvey’s High Treason (1929), paired with Gaston Quiribet’s The Fugitive Futurist (1925), each provide a science fiction vision of London, with live piano accompaniment by Neil Brand. On 24 October, London Loves… is a collection of silent and sound archive films on London, from travelogues to home movies. Read more.

New DVDs from Kino
Kino International has announced two major forthcoming silent DVDs. A ‘restored deluxe edition’ of The Last Laugh is released on 30 September; and a two-disc deluxe release, The General: The Ulimate Edition, in a high-definition video transfer, with a choice of three music scores. It’s released on 11 November 2008. Read more.

Big Bang at the ICA
On 28 September the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London is holding a one-day interactive music workshop and performance with silent films, organised by Big Bang Lab (an initiative formed by composer Sergio López Figueroa). Budding silent musicians are invited to bring along their acoustic instruments (or voices) to a workshop putting music to two contemporary silent works, followed by a programme of silents including Un Chien Andalou. Read more (PDF file).

‘Til next time!