Rowan Atkinson joins Chariots of Fire, from bbc.co.uk
Things are a little quiet at the moment here at Bioscope Towers as all at the scriptorium down their quill pens to follow the London Olympic Games. If we’re not transfixed by our TV screen, then we will be at the Games themselves, and so silent films will probably take a back seat for a while. If you saw the extraordinary ‘Isles of Wonder’ opening ceremony extravaganza devised by filmmaker Danny Boyle you may have spotted its two silent films references: a couple of clips from City Lights during a British film history montage, and (tangentially) Rowan Atkinson in Mr Bean mode playing keyboards for the Chariots of Fire music and winning the race on the sands from Hugh Hudson’s film.
I’ve written some thoughts on the inspiration for the opening ceremony provided by documentary filmmaker Humphrey Jennings over on the Moving Image blog that I write all too occasionally for the British Library: Pandaemonium and the Isles of Wonder.
As for silent films and the Olympic Games, do check out the Bioscope’s updated survey of Olympic film 1900-1928: Let the Games begin.
Poster for The Plank (1967 version), from bbc.co.uk
So farewell then to Eric Sykes, one of Britain’s best loved funny men. He was a natural comic performer, generally playing someone confident that he knew what he was doing while demonstrating time and again that he had no reason to be so, best exemplified by the long-running TV sitcom Sykes. He was also one of the most talented comic writers of his time, writing for Educating Archie, Tony Hancock, The Goons, Frankie Howerd and his own shows.
Like many of his generation of comedians, he had an immense affection and respect for the great silent comedians. Some, such as Bob Monkhouse and Michel Bentine, presented compilations of silent comedies on television to bring them to new audiences. Others, such as Ronnie Barker (with A Home of Your Own, Futtock’s End, The Picnic, By the Sea), Benny Hill (The Waiters, Eddie in August), and in recent years Paul Merton, David Schneider (Uncle Max) and Rowan Atkinson (Mr Bean) have continued the tradition, with varying degrees of homage to the past – and with varying success.
Eric Sykes made a number of silent, or near-silent slapstick comedies, of which the most famous and still fondly loved is The Plank, of which three versions were made. It started out as a wordless, black-and-white episode of his BBC TV series Sykes and a …, the episode being Sykes and a Plank (tx. 3 March 1964), in which the two protganists were Sykes and regular co-star Hattie Jacques. In 1967 Sykes remade it as a 54-minute colour cinema release, co-starring himself and Tommy Cooper. This was then re-released in 1974 cut to 45 minutes, before a third version (30mins) was made for Thames Television in 1979, with Arthur Lowe replacing Cooper. It is the 1967 film that is the most familiar.
Sykes (who lived in a silent world himself – he was almost completely deaf) made other silent shorts for cinema and television: Rhubarb (1969, remade as Rhubarb, Rhubarb in 1980) in which the characters utter just the one word (guess what it is), It’s Your Move (1969, remade in 1982), Mr H is Late (1988) and The Big Freeze (1993) among them. But it is The Plank that has retained a classic status of a kind. The story is simple – two builders purchase a floorboard for the house they are working on, and encounter all manner of hazards trying to transport it across town. Judged by the standards of the comedy greats of the 1920s, it is average stuff, but Sykes and Cooper have the right deadpan delivery in the face of absurdity, and in its scenario of an inanimate object geting the better of two men it merits some comparison with Laurel and Hardy’s travails with a piano in The Music Box. The simple plank (much like the large plane of glass) is a silent comedy staple in any case. The twist is that here the plank gets star billing (literally so in the 1967 film’s opening credits).
The Plank and its creator show a continuity of laughter down the years. Slapstick itself no longer has the popular appeal that it once enjoyed, but Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd et al (themselves inspired by an earlier generation of theatre comics) inspired the next generation of comedians such as Eric Sykes who flourished on radio and television, whose works then made the next generation laugh when young and inspired them to make others laugh in their own time (as the many affectionate tributes to Sykes from today’s comedians has demonstrate). It’s a continuous process of inheritance and gratitude. Comedy dates, but laughter is eternal. Thank you Eric.
Harold Abrahams winning the 100 metres, frame still from Les Jeux Olympiques Paris 1924
A month from now the London Olympic Games will begin. For two weeks hundreds of cameras will be trained on the athletes, images of whom will be beamed out to billions. The host broadcaster, the BBC, will provide over 2,500 hours of live coverage. Olympic Games footage will be receivable on TV sets, PCs, smart TVs, smart phones, on large screens in public spaces, and in 3D. The Olympic Games exists for our screens.
Perhaps nothing better illustrates the ubiquity, power and global shared experience that the motion picture has grown to represent from its simple beginnings in 1896 than that concentrated period, every four years, when it covers the Olympic Games, a phenomenon which likewise traces its (modern) roots to 1896. Four years ago the Bioscope produced a survey of the roots of Olympic moving image production, from the earliest years to 1928. We are reproducing that post, with revisions and new information, including recently discovered films, as our way of marking the forthcoming Games.
The modern Olympic Games and motion pictures share a common heritage, beyond that shared birthdate of 1896 (motion pictures existed before 1896, of course, but 1896 was when they first made their real impact upon the world). The two phenomena grew up together, in sophistication, intention and global reach. To view the films of the early Olympic Games is to witness the growth of the medium in how it captured action and form, from analysis, to (relatively) passive witness, to a medium that shaped athletic events to its own design. We see a transition from a formality bred of militaristic roots to entertainment, art and a focus on the individual. The survey that follows summarises the history of the Olympic Games on film throughout the silent era, that is, to 1928.
No one filmed the first Olympic Games of the modern era. The Games, which were held in Athens 6-15 April and attracted 241 athletes from fourteen nations, enjoyed some notice around the world, probably appealing as much to classicists as to athletes, but the motion picture industry was in its infancy and not as yet geared up to reporting on world news. Motion pictures had not yet reached Greece, America would only awake to motion pictures on a screen on 23 April, with the debut of the Edison Vitascope, and the Lumière brothers – really the only possible candidates – did not think to send one of their operators to Athens. Occasionally on television you will see film purporting to show the Games of 1896. Such scenes are false – in most cases, you are being shown images from 1906.
The 1900 Games were something of a disaster after the modest triumph of Athens. Organised to run alongside the great Paris Exhibition of 1900, the Games were barely recognised as such, being so chaotically organised and poorly promoted that many of the athletes who did take part in the events (which stretched from May-October 1900) were unaware that they had taken part in the Olympics. It is no surprise, therefore, than no standard films were made of Paris Games (several films of the Paris exhibition survive, but none show the athletic contests).
However, fleeting cinematographic records do exist. The Institut Marey, the scientific institute led by Etienne-Jules Marey, who had developed the art and science of chronophotography (sequence photography undertaken for the purposes of analysing motion), decided to record some of the visiting American athletes, to compare their methods with those of French athletes. Alvin Kraenzlein (winner of gold medals for long jump, 60 metres race, 110 metre hurdles and 200 metre hurdles), Richard Sheldon (illustrated, gold medal winner in the shot put), and the legendary Ray Ewry (exponent of the now discontinued events of standing high jump, long jump and triple jump) were among those recorded. The ‘films’ are a few frames long, lasting less than a second each, yet they were enough to demonstrate the superiority of the dynamic attack of the American technique over the correct military bearing of the equivalent French athletes. These fleeting images survive today – there are examples in the National Media Museum – and illustrations from them can be found in the official report on the Games.
St Louis, 1904
Paris was a disaster for the nascent Olympic movement, but St Louis was worse. Again, they went for the convenience of being part of a general Exposition, and again the Olympic events were mismanaged from start to finish, with little sense of a Games with a distinct identity, and the distant location putting off many athletes not hailing from America. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, were any films taken on the Games – certainly I’ve found no evidence from catalogues of the period of any such film being taken.
The 1906 unoffical Games were held at the same stadium in Athens as 1906. The above photograph (with close-up) shows a motion picture cameraman (possibly operating a Bioscope camera) filming the high jump. Image courtesy of http://www.sportsantiques.com
The intercalary Games of 1906 did not occur during an official Olympiad (i.e. the four-yearly period that marks when the Olympic Games are held), but this intermediary contest, designed partly as a sop to the Greeks who were disappointed that the Games were not being held permanently in Athens, was a relative success and did much to get the idea of the Olympics back on track. It also attracted the film companies. Gaumont and Pathé from France, the Warwick Trading Company from Britain, and Burton Holmes of America all made short films of the Games (we are long way yet from feature-length documentaries). Three one-reel films survive. Gaumont’s coverage held by the BFI concentrates on the opening ceremonies and gymnastic displays; recently discovered Pathé footage uncovered as part the Corrick Collection in Australia includes the opening and closing ceremonies, tug o’ war, hurdling, cycling, gymnastics), and medals ceremonies; the brief unidentified footage, also held by the BFI, shows the standing high jump.
Dorando Pietri finishing the 1908 Marathon (still photograph)
The Games started to come of age in London in 1908. Although they were again held in tandem with an exhibition, in this case the Franco-British Exhibition, for which the famous White City and associated stadium were built, this time the Games were welcomed by the organisers. The result was a popular success and a qualified triumph for sport – the qualification being necessary because the Games were marred by some bitter rivalry between America and Britain, geo-political tensions being played out on the athletics track not for the last time.
The Games were filmed by Pathé, in what seems to have been a semi-exclusive deal. The Charles Urban Trading Company filmed events outside the stadium, including the Marathon, but within the stadium it was Pathé alone, an indication of arrangements to come. Around ten minutes survive, a selection of which can be found on the British Pathe site, while the same footage is also held by the BFI. Basic coverage is given to the pole vault, high jump, tug o’ war, discus, water polo and women’s archery, though no names are given for athletes. But what distinguishes the 1908 coverage is the Marathon. Around half of the extant film of the Games is devoted to the race, concentrating on the Italian Dorando Pietri, who staggered over the line first, only to be disqualified because he had received help after he collapsed in the stadium within sight of the finishing line (something the film makes quite clear). For the first time on film we thrill at the sight of Olympic endeavour.
Montage of clips from the 1912 Stockholm Games, from the IOC’s YouTube channel
The Stockholm Games of 1912 were the most successful yet. Twenty-eight nations, 2,407 athletes (just forty-eight of them women), a triumph of organisation, and an event followed more eagerly around the world than ever before. Responsibility for filming the Games went to the A.B. Svensk –Amerikanska Film Kompaniet, which commissioned Pathé exclusively – apparently without controversy – to film a series of short newsfilms. All this footage survives in the archives of Sveriges Television. Now, at last, the athletes are named, and we get a sense of competition and achievement. In the first of two reels covering the Games held in the BFI National Archive, we see the inevitable gymnastic display, first by Scandinavian women’s team (for display purposes alone – women’s competitive Olympic gymnastics only began in 1928) followed by men’s team and individual gymnastics; the Swedish javelin thrower Eric Lemming, winner with the world’s first 60 metre throw; fencing, shot put, the 10,000 metres walk and the shot put, won by Harry Babcock of the USA. The second reel features men’s doubles tennis, the soccer tournament (Great Britain – not England – beating Denmark 4-2 in the final), Graeco-Roman wrestling, hammer throwing, the standing high jump, and the Marathon, run on an exhaustingly hot day that caused half the runners to retire. Filmed in engrossing detail, the drama of the Marathon is built up well, the tension in the sporting endeavour pushing forward the form of the film attempting to encapsulate it. The race was won by Kenneth McArthur of South Africa.
America’s Duke Kahanamoku, who later enjoyed a film career, winning the 100 metres freestyle at the 1920 Antwerp Games, from the IOC’s YouTube channel
The Sixth Olympiad was to have been held in Berlin in 1916. Those Games were, unsurprisingly, cancelled, though film exists of German athletes training for the Games. After the war, the Games were awarded to Belgium, which perhaps was not entirely ready for the compliment after all it had been through, and the 1920 Games were hastily and cheaply organised. Despite this, the growing world interest in athletic competition had continued to grow, and there were several notable athletes who made their mark on Olympic history, including the ‘Flying Finn’ Paavo Nurmi, America’s Charley Paddock winning the 100 metres, and France’s Suzanne Lenglen at the start of gaining worldwide fame as a tennis player. There is a tantalising suggestion in a New York Times article (28 Nov 1923) that an exclusive filming concession was organised for Antwerp, only to be overthrown before the Games because of protests from other film producers, but I have not been able to find confirmation of this nor discover which company was to have had the exclusive. But it is indication of growing American interest in the Games, and consequently increasing interest from the American media. Sadly, relatively few newsreels survive to show just some of the sporting events.
And then we come to 1924. The second Paris Games have become familiar to many through their recreation in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire. There is a particular thrill in seeing the two British athletes whose fortunes are covered by the Oscar-winning film, Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, turning up for real in such detail. This was the first Games to be covered in depth on film. The exclusive rights were granted to Rapid-Film of France. As reported for 1920, there was controversy over a single company being granted exclusive filming rights, with the Americans being particularly aggrieved, to the extent that their rugby team threatened to withdraw from its match with the French unless they were permitted to film it. The concession was granted (the USA amazingly won the match), but the episode highlighted the organising committee’s anxious search for additional revenue by selling exclusive rights, and the outrage this caused for those who believed the Games should not be anyone’s exclusive.
Though it could be conceived of as a single work, Rapid-Film’s Les Jeux Olympiques Paris 1924 was released in three parts in France (recreation of the Ancient Games, Summer, and the Winter Games held in Chamonix), and in the UK as a series of two-reelers dedicated to different sports. It was recently restored by the International Olympic Committee’s archives in its full length form, a daunting three-and-a-half hours long. There is too much about it that is drably routine, but individual events are never less than efficiently portrayed and occasionally marvellously so. Particularly thrilling is the football, where the Uruguyan gold medal winners demonstrate a level of tehnical accomplishment light years ahead of the sturdy endeavours of the European teams. The 100 metres, won by Abrahams, is a highlight, with choice details such as the athletes digging holes in the track for their heels. Slow motion is used artfully (particularly for the 3,000 metres steeplechase). The Marathon is a tour de force, a real drama in itself, with such carefully observed details as the anxious look of officials at the drinks stations (and how delightful in itself that the French served wine as well as water).
Star athletes on show include Nurmi, his great Finnish rival Ville Ritola, the Americans Jackson Scholz (sprinter) and Helen Wills (tennis player), but disappointingly all we see of the future Tarzan Johnny Weismuller is his submerged figure in long shot as he raced to fame as a swimmer. Les Jeux Olympiques Paris 1924 (produced by Jean de Rovera) is no film masterpiece, but as a sporting record, it captures greatness.
Amsterdam + St Moritz, 1928
The flying Finns Paavo Nurmi and Ville Ritola in the 5,000 metres (won by Ritola). The clip shows the 1928 film’s distinctive use of onscreen titles. From the IOC’s YouTube channel.
The last Olympic Games of the silent film era were held in Amsterdam (summer) and St Moritz (winter) in 1928. The Games were by now thoroughly established as an event of worldwide significance. The idea of a film dedicated to the Games had also been established, though the problems that beset the 1928 film of the summer Games, Olympische Spelen, were such that it was barely seen, and it remains little known. The history is complicated, but essentially in 1927 the Dutch Olympic Committee approached a federation of Dutch film businesses to manage the filming of the Games. Negotiations fell down over financial considerations – and because the Dutch commitee was, at the same time, negotiating with foreign film companies. A German company, Olympia-Film Ag, was originally awarded the contract, but heated objections were raised, OFA withdrew for financial reasons, and the committee ended up doing a deal with the Italian company Istituto Luce. For the first time a director was chosen with an ‘arthouse’ pedigree (Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia of 1936 was neither the first Olympic film nor the first with a notable director, as some histories would have us believe). The director was the German Wilhem Prager, who had enjoyed notable success with the 1925 kulturfilme sports documentary Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit (Ways to Strength and Beauty), in which Riefenstahl takes a fleeting acting role.
Prager’s film (preserved in the EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands) is no more than efficient, though it does have some innovations such as having the names of athletes in some distance races appear as captions alongside them as they run. The film shows us Nurmi and Ritola once more; Boughera El Ouafi, the Algerian-born (but running for France) winner of the Marathon; the ebullient Lord Burghley (played by Nigel Havers in Chariots of Fire) winning the 200 metre hurdles; and Japan’s triple jumper Mikio Oda, the first Asian athlete to win an Olympic gold medal. But alas, owing to the considerable mishandling of the whole affair by the local Olympic Committee, Dutch exhibitors boycotted the official film, and hardly anyone saw it.
Advertisement for Das Weisse Stadion
There was also a feature-length film made of the 1928 Winter Olympics at St Mortiz, Das Weisse Stadion. Directed by Dr Arnold Fanck (the man who discovered Leni Riefenstahl as a film actress) and Othmar Gurtner, it was made by the same Olympia-Film as was scheduled to film the summer Games (the commercial failure of the film led OFA to break its contract to film in Amsterdam), and edited by the great Walter Ruttmann. Until recently it was considered a lost film, but happily a print was just recently discovered and will be screened this August at the Bonner Sommerkino silent film festival in Bonn, Germany. Reports indicate that it is a beautifully shot film whose rediscovery greatly enriches our Olympic film heritage.
Charley Paddock tells us why sporting celebrities often flop when it comes to films, from Photoplay, August 1928
Finally, to complete the history, note must be made of those Olympic athletes of the silent era who went on to appear in fiction films once their fame had been established through sporting endeavour. Johnny Weissmuller, star of the 1924 and 1928 Games, of course went on to eternal fame as Tarzan. The American sprinting hero of 1920 and 1924, Charley Paddock, starred in Nine and Three-Fifths Seconds (1925), The Campus Flirt (1926), The College Hero (1927), High School Hero (1927), and (guess what) The Olympic Hero (1928). The Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku was in five American Olympic teams between 1912 and 1932, but could also be seen swimming and acting in Adventure (1925), Lord Jim (1925), Old Ironsides (1926), Woman Wise (1928) and The Rescue (1929). Buster Crabbe, like Weissmuller a swimming champion in 1928, went on to become Flash Gordon, while Herman Brix (shot put silver in 1928) went on to become Tarzan and as Bruce Bennett starred in many films, including Treasure of the Sierre Madre. Jim Thorpe, for some the greatest Olympic athlete of them all, who won the pentathlon and decathlon in 1912 only to have his medals stripped from him when it was discovered he had earned money playing minor league baseball, played bit parts in numerous Westerns in the 1930s and was portrayed by Burt Lancaster in Jim Thorpe -All-American (1951).
The best general book on the Olympic Games, by several miles, is David Wallechinsky and Janine Loukey’s regularly updated and republished The Complete Book of the Olympics, a sport-by-sport historical survey which also includes (if you look hard) information on the film careers of some Olympic athletes.
The easiest place to see some of the films is via the International Olympic Committee. Under the Olympic Games section of its official site there is a mini-history of each Games from 1896 (excluding 1906), and in each of these sub-sections at the bottom of the page there is a Photo Gallery which also contains some video clips. Most of the same clips can be found on the IOC’s YouTube channel. Regrettably there is some truly foul background music.
Information on the Olympic Games generally is all over the place, of course, but for the researcher particular attention should be drawn to the LA84 Foundation site, an astonishingly rich resource originally create to commemorate the 1984 Los Angeles Games but now providing free access to a vast range of digitised historical documents on all of the modern Games (including, for examples, the official reports).
And finally, to bring things up-to-date, a film that we’ve already featured on the Bioscope but which it seems appropriate to publish again here. It’s called Boy, it was sponsored by British Airways as part of its Great Britons initiative for the 2012 Olympic Games, and it is a modern silent film, of some poignancy.
(And yes I’ll be there. Athletics, handball, football and table tennis, since you ask)
My grateful thanks to Guido Convents, Carleton Hendricks, Robert Jacquier and Adrian Wood for help in writing this post.
This you have to see. Leonard Maltin, on his Movie Crazy blog, has drawn our attention to a thirty-minute 1996 silent film (in part), Heavenzapoppin’!, which its producer and star Robert Watzke has recently made available on YouTube.
The film is a head-spinningly ingenious delight. It starts off looking like a reasonably conventional silent film pastiche, filmed in black-and-white, with title cards and so forth, set in some East European village with a folk-like tale of a hopeless young man who tries to sell the village bear and instead exchanges it for some magic beans. But then the title card writer starts to complains about his lot (he always wanted to be an opera singer), and things start to get increasingly self-referential and strange …
To say much more would be to give the game away – just to say that this is a Piradellian exercise whose closest film point of reference might be The Purple Rose of Cairo. The performing troupe that plays the villagers, the ‘Bublaires’, ably demonstrates the close connection between slapstick and commedia dell-arte, and the knockabout comedy is genuinely funny. There are a couple of well-known names involved, Helen Slater (Watzke’s wife) and Bruno Kirby as a bewildered film director. Plus you get two bears, a witch, a custard pie fight, a dog with fleas and a happy ending.
The twists and turns of the narrative may tie your brain in knots, but this is a magical piece of filmmaking. Do give it a go.
What fun this is. Students on the Science Communication course at Imperial College London have produced a pastiche of The Artist (itself a pastiche, of course), on the theme of communicating science. Not a promising subject, you might think, but it is done with real style. The parallels with the Academy Award winner are ingenious, and the film (shot in monochrome) looks terrific. It even drags in the final third, much as does The Artist. Perhaps most impressively, they have persuaded the La Petit Reine production company to let them use extracts from Ludovic Bource’s soundtrack to The Artist. Full marks to them for having the nerve, and to the production company for being good sports.
The thirteen-minute film tells of a brilliant, vain scientist who gains the applause of his students but is failing to communicate his ideas to a wider audience. This is the concern of a female student, who joins him in the laboratory, co-authors some scientific papers with him, then goes on to public acclaim because of her great ability to explain science to the general public. The thematic fit is perfect. Charmingly played by Haralambos Dayantis and Harriet Jarlett, and with a real sense of how silent film works, the only disappointment is a weak, inconclusive ending when it was crying out for the duo to dance among the test tubes to general applause.
There’s information on the film’s production at the Science Communication course’ Refractive Index blog, with some interesting thoughts on the parallels between the world of cinema and their world:
In learning about the history of silent film, we discovered an important parallel between the introduction of talking in film and talking in science. Early attempts at using sound in film were deemed clunky, and yet in time, film with sound became the norm. Any new enterprise needs time and effort in order to fulfill its full potential. Similarly, early attempts at public engagement, such as the GM consultation, have been awkward and much criticised. However, with the slightly warmer response that upstream public engagement on nanotechnology has received, we may be witnessing the refinement of a technique that could eventually become the established norm.
If this is an example of how The Artist has inspired people to think of silent films, not just their history but how they tell stories, then we should be really pleased. It is turning out to be a real force for good.
The London Olympic Games creep ever closer, and we are going to see all manner of institutions pulling out the stops to express to us what it all means. Well, what it all means is people winning races, but those of an Olympian frame of mind like to think that it’s a bit more uplifting and inspiring than that. So it is that British Airways has sponsored its ‘Great Britons‘ initiative, designed to provide “a global platform for up and coming British talent in food, art and film” in the run up to the Olympic and Paralympic Games. From this has come this short, modern silent film, entitled Boy.
The ten-minute film was scripted by ‘Great Britons’ sponsored talent Prasanna Puwanarajah. It is directed by Justin Chadwick and photographed by Danny Cohen, with a score by Alex Heffes, and stars Timothy Spall as a carpenter mourning the death of his cyclist son who finds some sort of redemption at the Olympic park’s Velodrome.
It’s surprisingly downbeat in theme, but expertly put together and they hope that its lack of dialogue will mean that it strikes a chord with audiences worldwide. British Airways will be showing the also be showing the film on flights in the months leading up to the Games. Anyway, see what you think.
We’ll be having more on silent films and the Olympics here at the Bioscope over the next few months.
When the Silent Film Director app for the iPhone was released a year or so ago, we noted it in passing and gave it no further thought. Just another gimmicky smartphone app – in this case one which converted your videos into faux silents with sepia tone, scratches and intertitles – and not likely to make much of an impact.
Well, a year or so on, and Silent Film Director has turned out to be a cult hit. More thought has gone into to development than you might have expected, with respected silent film musician Ben Model serving as consultant. News stories regularly come down the wires that indicate its growing popularity, demonstrated not least by the number of videos produced in the format which are to be found on YouTube. Most are pretty much what you would expect, inconsequential home movies with a dash of tomfoolery, but there is clearly something about the time travel effect that converting 2012 into 1922 at the push of a button that appeals, and which has played its part, we suspect, in the increased appreciation of silent film generally which we cannot help but notice.
Some day someone will be able to write a thesis on the connection between The Artist and Silent Film Director in relation to the rebirth of silent films, but meanwhile things have come to their logical conclusion and we have the first iPhone Silent Film Festival, put on by MacPhun, the developers of Silent Film Director. Budding Hazanaviciuses have until May 28th to submit a video of up to three minutes in length, using the app. The rules are simple, and supplied in suitable style:
You don’t have to shoot your film with your iPhone, just use the app to edit and upload the results. The competition is open to anyone worldwide. Winners will be announced on June 1st, and there are weekly winners as well, with prizes including tickets to see Napoleon in San Francisco, which is commendably imaginative of them. You can view the videos on the Silent Film Director YouTube channel, from which we have picked the video at the top of this post because (a) it’s the first silent film we’ve seen with Barack Obama; (b) by who knows what design there happens to be a poster for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari in the background; (c) the footage is taken from 24-hour channel Russia Today, of all sources; and (d) it’s quite fun (the music is from that regular source for silent film music online, Incompetech.com).
(Apologies for the reduced activity from The Bioscope of late. We are busy with other matters, though we try to keep the news service active. Plus we’re working on one of those long posts which require far too much research.)
Christopher Nolan meet Michel Hazanavicius, courtesy of The Artistifier
I have to tell you about this. Though your scribe has been resisting the general hoohah surrounding the Academy Award for The Artist, charming though the film is and amazing though it may be that a silent film has won the Oscar for best picture, we have to draw your attention to a wonderful new website. The Artistifier takes any YouTube video and turns it into an award-winning silent film. So your video appears in black-and-white, projected on a cinema screen, with your title and director credit, and a caption option so you can add your own intertitles, and then save the film for others to enjoy.
Number two in our series of short posts on Australia while we happen to be away in said country is a quick look at the modern silent. Australia did produce a silent feature film in 2007, Dr Plonk, directed by Rolf de Heer, of Bad Boy Bubby infamy. It’s a slapstick, black-and-white comedy about a scientist from 1907 discovering that the world will end in 2008.
But instead, I recommend trying out Moonrise. This was made in 2010 by stuents from the Griffith Film School (great name for a place producing a silent film), Griffith University, Queensland. It’s a haunting, wry piece, simply done and nicely photographed in black and white. More people should have viewed it than has been the case up to now. Do take a look.
Asa Butterfield (Hugo Cabret) and Chloë Grace Moretz (Isabelle) in Hugo
Two films currently on release have brought the subject of silent films into popular debate. Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese in 3D, is adaptation of Brian Selznick’s children’s novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, set in Paris at the end of the 1920s. The French early filmmaker Georges Méliès, played by Ben Kingsley, is a central character, and the film serves as a celebration of filmmaking and the importance of recognising its pioneers. The Artist, directed by Michael Hazanavicius, recreates the end of the silent film era in the manner of a silent film, telling the tale of how an actress succeeds and an actor fails to meet the challenge of sound.
Both films have met with much acclaim. The purpose of this post is to consider why they have been greeted so enthusiastically, and to see what this may mean for silent film appreciation. The two films have been seen as complementary, though they are very different in technique, in finance (Hugo cost Walt Disney Paramount $170M, The Artist cost $12M), and in target audience. They do share a French background (The Artist is set in Hollywood but is a French production), they take place at the same period, and each shows us films being made and people enjoying watching those films. Both make numerous references to film classics (Safety Last for Hugo, the films of Douglas Fairbanks and rather oddly Citizen Kane and Vertigo for The Artist). Both incorporate archive films supplied by Lobster Films of Paris. Both rely heavily on dogs.
Hugo has been widely interpreted as a work of restoration: restoring an understanding of film, recovering Méliès’ ‘lost’ reputation, and championing the cause of film history overall (Scorsese is the leading figure behind the World Cinema Foundation). Roger Ebert proclaims, “We feel a great artist has been given command of the tools and resources he needs to make a movie about — movies.” For Jay A. Fernandez, the film is about “the transformative power of cinema, its unique ability to connect people, the need to preserve old movies and the truth that an artist’s legacy lives in those who treasure the work.” Philip French states, “The film is a great defence of the cinema as a dream world, a complementary, countervailing, transformative force to the brutalising reality we see all around us.”
Well, lucky the man who gets given $170M to make a film about the importance of cinema history. Disney Paramount wanted an adaptation of Selznick’s much acclaimed book, and Scorsese has been strikingly faithful to it, closely following a rather broken-backed story which begins with the repair of a mysterious automaton, but then turns into a concerted effort by all to bring Méliès back to general acclaim, rescuing him from his toyshop surroundings and his angry denial of his glorious past. Scorsese softens some of the ill-temper that characterises the book (the character of Isabelle is far less argumentative in the film) and builds up the part of the station guard (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) as comic relief. Alas, neither Scorsese nor Cohen have much feeling for slapstick, so Harold Lloyd is invoked but certainly not encapsulated.
But Scorsese’s film also adopts, and extends, the book’s old-fashioned didactic tone. The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Hugo want to teach children a lesson. Reading books is good for you, appreciating old films is good for you, investigating the past is exciting – and good for you. Old people are interesting. Learning is fun.
The tone is that of children’s books of another age, where children are told things that will make them better people, and they are compliant in this. Hugo and Isabelle love being surrounded by old books, then are enthralled to see Méliès’ antediluvian magic films. They behave like no child I know ever behaves, and just as Selznick’s book was the kind of children’s book that adults like to purchase but children seldom read, so Scorsese’s film is a children’s film that offers scant enertainment for its supposed audience, but instead preaches to them – or else to the adults with them.
Of course, the recreation of Méliès’ studio is a marvel, and personally I would have been happy has Scorsese kept himself to a 20-minute evocation of how Méliès’ films were made. Much effort went into making these scenes as authentic as possible, for which all praise to his advisers. For the specialist this is the treat of treats, cinema as time machine taking us back to one of the key points in time and place in film history, so we can believe that, yes, it was like this, because we were there. But did no one think to explain to the young audience why on earth M. Méliès made such odd films with undersea creatures, angels and monsters, and what was so enthralling about them?
The purpose of Hugo is to instruct. Old films are good for us, their history is important to us, and that’s all there is to it. It never says why. I don’t think it is able to say why.
Jean Dujardin (George Valentin) in The Artist
The Artist does not seek to teach; it seeks only to amuse. An entertaining wisp of a film, it tells of a silent film actor, George Valentin (a mixture of Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert rather than the Valentino his name might suggest), whose career goes on the slide when the talkies come in. At the same time, an actress, Peppy Miller, whose career began by accident as an extra in one of his films, rises to become a great star of early sound. So it’s Singin’ in the Rain meets A Star is Born.
The film has the boldness of conception that can come with a small budget, and it tells its tale in the manner of a silent film. It has the aspect ratio (1.33:1), late silent film speed (22fps), monochrome glistening like the peak Hollywood productions of the late 1920s in which it is set, and intertitles for the most part aptly employed. More than that, it provides a lesson – far more subtly than Scorsese’s film – in how silent films work on the imagination. The director Hazanavicius emulates many silent film conventions, but not as pastiche, rather as necessary devices for telling a story primarily visually. Pacing, framing, performance, and the use of music to drive the narrative are all noticeably different to that which we are accustomed as cinemagoers today. There are devices such as the close-ups of talking voices that haunt Valentin, and the bravura shot of a three-tier staircase viewed sideways on that belong to the era of silent film and serve as stimulus to the imagination rather than simply displaying a knowledge of silent film techniques. The film shows us things differently. The cleverness lies in how we discover this for ourselves.
The film makes its statement early on, where we see Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin) in one of his films, with musical accompaniment, then the film cuts to the audience applauding. We expect to hear sound, but there is none. The film’s difference is established, and we proceed on a voyage of discovery (not of Hugo‘s blatant and mishandled kind), adjusting to how a film can be made differently. We see films as they might otherwise be, or as they once were.
Such an exercise in technique can only be sustained so far, and after an exceptionally bright and inventive forty-five minutes or so, The Artist picks up on its A Star in Born theme and rather loses its way. It’s not too clear why Valentin refuses to engage with the talkies, but it his stubborness that matters and the film takes up the theme of male pride without offering any depth of understanding. Is this a limitation of the silent technique? Does The Artist venture into areas where silent films would fail to register? William Boyd, in an interesting critique of the film, thinks so:
In a silent film you have, as an actor, a small repertoire of emotions you can employ in a given scene. For example, imagine trying to mime coquettish or yearning, or wrathful or sneering – not so difficult. Now imagine trying to mime mildly cynical, or suppressed embarrassment, or misanthropy, or partial incomprehension. It begins to get very hard. Shades of meaning are lost, complex mixtures of emotion are next to impossible, ambiguity is a no-go area.
Boyd, who has written for silent films (the 2009 TV series 10 Minute Tales) and a novel in which silent films play a major part (The New Confessions), should know the medium quite well, but anyone who has seen enough silents would argue that though they do frequently apply a broad brush, there are infinite gradiations of subtlety in the human face alone, and with judicious titles where necessary, they can do shade and ambiguity handsomely. With The Artist it seems more a failure of plotting – a twist or two wouldn’t have gone amiss. Ultimately films must be about people and the challenges they face, and there is no moral in the story of how silent films were supplanted by sound. The Artist has to be ‘about’ something else, and here it doesn’t really try hard enough.
But the reviews have not concentrated on the moralising but instead on the freshness, indeed optimism that the film exudes (has there ever been a film where those working in film have all seemed such nice people? No wonder the Academy is looking at it so favourably), and what it says about the world we now inhabit and the films we now see. For Mick LaSalle, the film is “really exploring, the death and extinction of a medium that brought the world together, that everyone could experience in the same way, never from the outside, never as a stranger. With delicacy and originality, it laments what went away.” John Farr speaks for many when he writes: “Along with Martin Scorsese’s just-released Hugo, the film taps into a growing wave of longing for the kind of pictures that made this relatively new medium so powerful and popular in the first place.”
And that’s what both movies have achieved, among a jaded audience – a longing for a cinema and a time that once was. One could argue that the silent cinema was not so fresh-faced and idealistic as either film portrays, being as calculating in its effects, as varied in its subject matter, and as driven by the box office as is the case now. There was no age of innocence, just an early age grown comforting through the distance of time. One can also argue that many find in the cinema of today what others imagine only existed in decades gone by (I say this after having seen a 9-year-old transported by the visual magic of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, a film I found incomprehensible). One might also argue that silent films have been here all along, and why don’t they go to a few more festivals or check out just what’s on DVD and Blu-Ray these days.
Some will now, of course. The best thing the films are likely to bring about is a rediscovery of silent films in new audiences. I think The Artist will achieve this more than will Hugo, whose appeal seems to be to a quite narrow stratum of cinéastes. It doesn’t illuminate these films – it just demands that we revere them. The Artist is a slight film really, and somewhat overpraised (as does happen when Weinstein is carefully managing the hype on the path to the Oscars). But it has strength enough to inspire.
It struck me that the film it might be most interesting to compare it to is the Gorgio Moroder-scored version of Metropolis produced in 1984 and recently released on Blu-Ray. As vulgar a travesty as Metropolis with ’80s pop songs was, it had a certain bold vigour about it. People heard about it, went to see it, and many remember it with affection. It has been noticeable just how many people cite it as the first silent film that they saw and how it inspired them to seek out others. Now another silent film has broken through to popular understanding, and it is going to make some people want to see more. The Artist genuinely speaks with the language of silent film (much as the elephantine Hugo does not), and years from now people will be saying how they went out to discover for themselves that language being expressed again and again.
Not everyone likes The Artist (Richard Schickel hates it), but that’s because they judge it as a film trying to be a silent film when it can’t be, because the silent era is over. But The Artist is not a silent film. It’s an invitation to consider silent films. Each of us may then judge to what degree it has succeeded, but it will have made us think. And that’s what good films do.