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.
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.
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.
News in 2011, clockwise from top left: The White Shadow, The Artist, A Trip to the Moon in colour, Brides of Sulu
And so we come to the end of another year, and for the Bioscope it is time to look back on another year reporting on the world of early and silent film. Over the twelve months we have written some 180 posts posts, or well nigh 100,000 words, documenting a year that has been as eventful a one for silent films as we can remember, chiefly due to the timeless 150-year-old Georges Méliès and to the popular discovery of the modern silent film thanks to The Artist. So let’s look back on 2011.
Ben Kingsley as Georges Méliès in Hugo
Georges Méliès has been the man of the year. Things kicked off in May with the premiere at Cannes of the coloured version of Le voyage dans la lune / A Trip to the Moon (1902), marvellously, indeed miraculously restored by Lobster Films. The film has been given five star publicity treatment, with an excellent promotional book, a new score by French band Air which has upset some but pleased us when we saw it at Pordenone, a documentary The Extraordinary Voyage, and the use of clips from the film in Hugo, released in November. For, yes, the other big event in Méliès’ 150th year was Martin Scorsese’s 3D version of Brian Selznick’s children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, in which Méliès is a leading character. Ben Kingsley bring the man convincingly to life, and the film thrillingly recreates the Méliès studio as it pleads for us all to understand our film history. The Bioscope thought the rest of the film was pretty dire, to be honest, though in this it seems to be in a minority. But just because a film pleads the cause of film doesn’t make it a good film …
For the Bioscope itself things have been eventful. In January we thought a bit about changing the site radically, then thought better of this. There was our move to New Bioscope Towers in May, the addition of a Bioscope Vimeo channel for videos we embed from that excellent site, and the recent introduction of our daily news service courtesy of Scoop It! We kicked off the year with a post on the centenary of the ever-topical Siege of Sidney Street, an important event in newsreel history, and ended it with another major news event now largely forgotten, the Delhi Durbar. Anarchists win out over imperialists is the verdict of history.
Asta Nielsen in Hamlet
We were blessed with a number of great DVD and Blu-Ray releases, with multi-DVD and boxed sets being very much in favour. Among those that caught the eye and emptied the wallet were Edition Filmmuseum’s Max Davidson Comedies, the same company’s collection of early film and magic lantern slide sets Screening the Poor and the National Film Preservation Foundation’s five disc set Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938. Individual release of the year was Edition Filmmuseum’s Hamlet (Germany 1920), with Asta Nielsen and a fine new music score (Flicker Alley’s Norwegian surprise Laila just loses out because theatre organ scores cause us deep pain).
2011 was the year when the modern silent film hit the headlines, the The Artist enchanting all-comers at Cannes and now being touted for the Academy Award best picture. We have lost count of the number of articles written recently about a revival of interest in silent films, and their superiority in so many respects to the films of today. Jaded eyes are looking back to a (supposedly) gentler age, it seems. We’ve not seen it yet, so judgement is reserved for the time being. Here, we’ve long championed the modern silent, though our March post on Mr Bean was one of the least-read that we’ve penned in some while.
In the blogging world, sadly we said goodbye to Christopher Snowden’s The Silent Movie Blog in February – a reminder that we bloggers are mostly doing this for love, but time and its many demands do sometimes call us away to do other things. However, we said hello to John Bengston’s very welcome Silent Locations, on the real locations behind the great silent comedies. Interesting new websites inclued Roland-François Lack’s visually stunning and intellectually intriguing The Cine-Tourist, and the Turconi Project, a collection of digitised frames for early silents collected by the Swiss priest Joseph Joye.
The Bioscope always has a keen eye for new online research resources, and this was a year when portals that bring together several databases started to dominate the landscape. The single institution is no longer in a position to pronounce itself to be the repository of all knowledge; in the digital age we are seeing supra-institutional models emerging. Those we commented on included the Canadiana Discovery Portal, the UK research services Connected Histories and JISC Media Hub, UK film’s archives’ Search Your Film Archives, and the directory of world archives ArchiveGrid. We made a special feature of the European Film Gateway, from whose launch event we blogged live and (hopefully) in lively fashion.
Images of Tacita Dean’s artwork ‘Film’ at Tate Modern
We also speculated here and there on the future of film archives in this digital age, particularly when we attended the Screening the Future event in Hilversum in March, and then the UK Screen Heritage Strategy, whose various outputs were announced in September. We mused upon media and history when we attended the Iamhist conference in Copenhagen (it’s been a jet-setting year), philosophizing on the role of historians in making history in another bout of live blogging (something we hope to pursue further in 2012). 2011 was the year when everyone wrote their obituaries for celluloid. The Bioscope sat on the fence when considering the issue in November, on the occasion of Tacita Dean’s installation ‘Film’ at Tate Modern – but its face was looking out towards digital.
It was a year when digitised film journals made a huge leap forward, from occasional sighting to major player in the online film research world, with the official launch of the Media History Digital Library. Its outputs led to Bioscope reports on film industry year books, seven years of Film Daily (1922-1929) and the MHDL itself. “This is the new research library” we said, and we think we’re right. Another important new online resource was the Swiss journal Kinema, for the period 1913-1919.
It has also been a year in which 3D encroached itself upon the silent film world. The aforementioned Hugo somewhat alarmingly gives us not only Méliès films in 3D, but those of the Lumière brothers, and film of First World War soldiers (colourised to boot). The clock-face sequence from Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (also featured in Hugo) was converted to 3D and colourised, much to some people’s disgust; while news in November that Chaplin’s films were to be converted into 3D for a documentary alarmed and intrigued in equal measure.
The Soldier’s Courtship
Film discovery of the year? The one that grabbed all the headlines – though many of them were misleading ones – was The White Shadow (1923), three reels of which turned up in New Zealand. Normally an incomplete British silent directed by Graham Cutts wouldn’t set too many pulses running, but it was assistant director Alfred Hitchcock who attracted all the attention. Too many journalists and bloggers put the story ahead of the history, though one does understand why. But for us the year’s top discovery was Robert Paul’s The Soldier’s Courtship (1896), the first British fiction film made for projection, which was uncovered in Rome and unveiled in Pordenone. It may be just a minute long, but it is a perky delight, with a great history behind its production and restoration.
Another discovery was not of a lost film but rather a buried one. Philippine archivists found that an obscure mid-1930s American B-feature, Brides of Sulu, was in all probability made out of one, if not two, otherwise lost Philippines silents, Princess Tarhata and The Moro Pirate. No Philippine silent fiction film was known have survived before now, which makes this a particularly happy discovery, shown at Manila’s International Silent film Festival in August. The Bioscope post and its comments unravel the mystery.
Among the year’s film restorations, those that caught the eye were those that were most keenly promoted using online media. They included The First Born (UK 1928), Ernst Lubistch’s Das Weib des Pharao (Germany 1922) and the Pola Negri star vehicle Mania (Germany 1918).
And we said goodbye to some people. The main person we lost from the silent era itself was Barbara Kent, star of Flesh and the Devil and Lonesome, who made it to 103. Others whose parting we noted were the scholar Miriam Hansen; social critic and author of the novel FlickerTheodore Roszak; the founder of Project Gutenberg, Michael Hart; and the essayist and cinéasteGilbert Adair.
As always, we continue to range widely in our themes and interests, seeing silent cinema not just for its own sake but as a means to look out upon the world in general. “A view of life or survey of life” is how the dictionary defines the word ‘bioscope’ in its original use. We aim to continue doing so in 2012.
2012 will of course see the Olympic Games in London, and the nation is cranking itself up in readiness. One of the things we’ve been promised was called the Cultural Olympiad, and was designed to be a jamboree of art and culture for all those people who don’t like sport. The name ‘Cultural Olympiad’ was awful, and the whole thing was staggering along badly, enthusing no one, until it was given a sharp kick by a new head (Ruth McKenzie), and now we have the London 2012 Festival officially announced, a nationwide festival of ambition, imagination and great variety – though still for people who don’t much like sport.
Well, this is all very good, and though I’m one of those who stubbornly thinks the Olympic Games is about sport, if we have a show or two thrown in, well who’s going to complain? And among the rich offering announced so far, which range from a World Shakespeare Festival to plans to have all the bells of the United Kingdom ring at the same time (in the name of art), there is going to be a place for silent film. From 1 June to 31 August there will be The Genius of Hitchcock, which will feature three of Hitchcock’s nine surviving silent feature films screened at venues across London, with new scores. A while ago the British Film Institute announced its Rescue the Hitchcock 9 preservation appeal, and while one has a nagging feeling that, of all the silent films out there, those made by Hitchcock have been quite well looked after so far and aren’t in any iminent peril, nevertheless is nice that they are getting the attention and being presented to new audiences. The Lodger, with a score by Nitin Sawhney, will be screening at the Barbican on 21 July; The Pleasure Garden, with a score by Daniel Patrick Cohen, at Wilton’s Music Hall on 28-29 June; while the venue, date and composer for Blackmail have yet to be announced. (By the way, someone should tell the Festival people that the still they have for Blackmail is actually Hitchcock’s The Manxman …)
Doubtless the Bioscope will have a few Olympic-themed posts in 2012, if only an update to our Silent Olympics post on the history of the Games’ coverage on film during the silent era, as new films have been discovered since we wrote the post in 2008.
But while we are celebrating this new festival, let’s also be thinking of festivals we won’t have the pleasure of experiencing. The Bird’s Eye View festival of women’s film, which has had a strong commitment towards programming silent films, has had a 90% cut in its funding for 2012, and consequently isn’t taking place next year. It hopes to return in 2013, and is continuing other activities, including its current Sound & Silents touring programme of films with new score by female composers. But it’s a sad loss.
Frame still from the documentary film of the 1928 Olympic Games held in Amsterdam, Olympische Spelen, showing distance runners Paavo Nurmi, Ville Ritola and Edvin Wide, with innovative on-screen titles
Fascinated by the deathless prose demonstrated by this blog? Fancy reading more, only this time with footnotes? Well, if you go to my personal website you’ll find a growing number of my articles for scholarly journals which I’ve been able to put up online for free by kind permission of the publishers. There are two very welcome trends being demonstrated by journal publishers: one, they are offering increasing amounts of content online for free, though obviously in the hope of attracting subscribers to the greater amount of content that remains behind paywalls; and two, when you do write an essay for them, often they allow you to post a PDF (or a link to it) on a personal web page or departmental page, just so long as you acknowledge the source and link to the journal in question.
I raise this now because, just in time for 2012, I’ve just put up a new essay, ‘Rituals and Records: The Films of the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games‘, recently published in European Review, vol. 19 no. 4, 2011, by kind permission of Cambridge University Press. The link here is to my web page, so that readers see the full acknowledgment before finding the PDF.
Below, in reverse chronological order, are other essays of mine that currently are freely available, via one route or another (others are listed on my site that link to subscription-only sites):
‘Aufbruch in die Lüfte: Die Anfänge des Filmens und Fliegens’ [Taking to the Air: Early Film and Early Flight], in Die Kunst zu Fliegen in Film und Fotografie (Düsseldorf: NRW-Forum Kultur und Wirtschaft, 2004) [Downloadable version in English (PDF, 67KB)]
Part of DVD cover for Metropolis, from Ain’t it Cool News
We’re publishing a little infrequently at present, both the regular posts and the newsreel, but the main thing is that we’re still publishing. Here’s a round-up of some of the recent silent news and events coming up.
The silent film version that many love to hate, while for others it is the version that was a welcome introduction to silents, is to come out on Blu-Ray. Electro-disco composer Giorgio Moroder’s score for Metropolis came out in 1984, and was controversial both for presenting a cut-down version (80mins) and for throwing pop songs on top of it (Freddy Mercury sings “Love Kills”, Pat Benatar sings “Here’s my Heart” – yep, it’s the 1980s). It’s become something of a cult favourite and now Kino are bringing it out theatrically in October and on Blu-Ray late 2011 or early 2012. Read more.
The Toronto Urban Film Festival (known as TUFF) brings new one-minute silent films, entered in competition, to be seen by 1.3 million daily commuters on the ONESTOP TTC subway platform screens. This year the guest judge for the festival is Atom Egoyan. It runs 9-18 September, and there are examples of some of the truly ingenious and creative videos submitted on the festival site. Read more.
Silents in New Zealand
A silent film festival offering more traditional fare is New Zealnd’s annual Opitiki Silent Film Festival, which this year takes place 2-4 September. The emphasis is on comedy and rugby, and there haven’t been too many silent rugby film programmes, to my recollection. The festival features Lloyf, Langdon, Keaton, Pollard and more, plus a one-hour silent film compilation All Blacks which features “footage of the 1905 Originals NZ touring team plus the 1924/1925 Invincibles”. Read more.
Où est Max?
Once again the Cine-Tourist website beats all competition in the cine-blogosphere with an engrossing (if very long) post, handsomely illustrated, on Max Linder, the films he shot in the streets of Vincennes, and what the locality says about him. None of these films can ever be called accidental in their choice of geography, because everything that we see makes the film that plays before us. Read more.
More journals online
More and more silent film journals are appearing on the Internet Archive, courtesy of Bruce Long of the Taylorology site and David Pierce of the Media History Digital Library. Long has added nine issues of Picture-Play for 1922-23 and one of Screenland for 1923; Pierce has added extra volumes of Moving Picture World for 1913, all of 1914, most of 1915, and three months each of 1916 and 1918. Copious thanks to both. Another Pierce upload is going to be the subject of a special post. Read more (Pierce) and more (Long)
Highlights from the Topical Budget newsreel of England beating Australia in the Fifth Test at Lords in 1926, thereby winning back the Ashes
Here in England the skies are grey, and when it’s not raining it’s sleeting and a cold wind blows. And yet there is a spring in our steps and sunshine in our hearts. We have beaten the Australians. For anyone outside the few countries that take cricket seriously, the news that England has won the Ashes – the name given to the periodic series of Test matches played between England and Australia – cannot mean anything much. But here in England it is glorious news, all the more so because the victory was in Australia (where four years ago Australia won 5-0), because it is so rare (the last time we won there was 25 years ago), and because it was done with such ruthless professionalism, which are not words always associated with English cricket. Damn it all, we played like Australians.
So how can the Bioscope – whose scribe is somewhat partial to the game – commemorate this great event? Well, how else but with a survey of cricket and silent film? There’s a rich history there, and some fine films to discover online, if you know where to look.
Cricket is not a game that lends itself easily to the motion picture camera, particularly for the era of silent film. Games can last up to five days, the action takes places at a distance in the middle of a large field, there are long stretches where nothing dynamic happens. For cameramen shooting with expensive film stock, and with limited lenses, cricket in the early years of film presented a huge challenge. It is no surprise to find that the earliest cricket films focus on individuals and illustrations of play specially set up for the cameras. In the 1910s and especially the 1920s greater efforts were made to capture periods of play, with remarkable success given the circumstances.
Arguably the first British film was a cricket film, since a test film made by pioneers Birt Acres and Robert Paul in February/March 1895 showed their colleague Henry Short dressed in cricket whites outside Acres’ London home (the film, of which a few frames survive, is variously known as Incident at Clovelly Cottage or Cricketer Jumping Over Garden Gate). However, the first true cricket films were made in 1897, and there is something particularly hallowed about those films from the 1890s which capture the end of the great Victorian sporting era. The first films were a set made by Australian photographer Henry Walter Barnett in December 1897 at the time of the England v Australia Test match in Sydney. Using a Lumière Cinématographe, Barnett filmed scenes of the England and Australia teams coming off the field of play and the English player (albeit Indian) Prince Ranjitsinhji shown practising in the nets. It shows the great stylist of his age going through a series of typically aggressive strokes, filmed from a position to the batsman’s right and of course far closer to the batsman than could have been possible were Barnett filming actual play. When the film was exhibited in Britain it was accompanied by sound effects of ball hitting bat, and when the film is shown today (it is the only one of the set to survive) the sound effect is faithfully reproduced.
W.G. Grace practising at Hastings in 1901, from BFI National Archive
The great figure of Victorian cricket was W.G. Grace, and he was a popular subject for filmmakers who looked to capture his celebrity as much as his play. Three films survive: and three films survive. Dr Grace’s Jubilee Procession, filmed by the Prestwich Manufacturing Company on 18 July 1898 on the occasion of the Gentlemen v Players match celebrating Grace’s 50th birthday at Lords shows a parade of cricketing legends passing by the camera: Grace himself, Arthur Shrewsbury, Andrew Stoddart, William Gunn, Arthur Lilley, Samuel Woods, Robert Abel, Edward Wynard, F.S. Jackson, J.T. Hearne, Gregor MacGregor, John A. Dixon, William Storer, William Lockwood, A.C. MacLaren, William Brockwell, Charles Townsend, Schofield Haigh, Alec Hearne, John Mason, Wilfred Rhodes, Charles Kortright and John Tunnicliffe – it’s practically the entire Victorian age of cricket captured in one fifty-foot film (the film can be found on the British Movietone site, albeit printed the wrong way round, though you need register beforehand). Film also exists of Grace in June 1899 walking past the camera, accompanied by Ranjitsinhji, at Trent Bridge on the occasion of the first Test v Australia. There is just the one film of Grace in action, filmed by Williamson in 1901, again in the company of Ranjitsinhji (clearly a popular subject for filmmakers) practising batting in the nets at Hastings in September 1901.
Other films exist of this period of the Australian team in England walking past the 70mm camera of the Biograph company, somewhere in England in 1899 (those on display are Joe Darling, Victor Trumper, Ernie Jones, Hugh Trumble, James Kelly, Frank Iredale and Frank Laver), and second Biograph film, Ranjitsinhji and C.B. Fry at the Wickets, made in 1901, which shows the two greats batting on the field of play in a sequence which clearly had to be set up, as the camera is postioned close to the action. But we must shed a tear for the films of this period whose descriptions we have but which are now considered lost. Just imagine, oh cricket lovers, what would be if we could see this set of Biograph films from the legendary 1902 Test match between England and Australia, as described in a theatre programme:
England versus Australia at the Oval:
(a) Return to the Pavilion after close of Australia’s 2nd innings
(b) Australians going to field for England’s 2nd innings
(c) Jessop batting
(d) Hirst plays Trumble
(e) Rhodes drives Trumble
Now there’s a holy grail for the cricket film archivist.
Joe Darling (batsman) and James Kelly (wicketkeeper) from 1905 film of the Australian team. Note the regulation fearsome moustaches. From www.movietone.com
It is at this point in cricket film history, however, that the available archive starts to lessen. As films started to get a little longer, ironically it became more of a challenge to film cricket, because short portrait shots were no longer enough, while films of five minutes or more struggled to capture anything of the game, or – presumably – to find an audience keen to seen such films. Combined with the usual losses to history of films from this period anyway, and there are sadly few film records of cricket 1900-1910. The most substantial is to be found in a renowned 1931 early sound film called That’s Cricket!, made by Australasian films, which has a section showing the 1905 Australians, showing Joe Darling, Sydney Gregory, Frank Laver, Warwick Armstrong, Tibby Cotter, James Kelly, Albert Hopkins, Clem Hill, Alfred Noble, Reginald Duff, Charlie McLeod and others, posing for the cameras and at practice. The 1905 film (some seven minutes of it) can also be found on the British Movietone site (again, you need to register first with the site to use it, but it is free). A much shorter version is also on the British Pathé newsreel site. Who originally produced I have not been able to find out.
Mitchell & Kenyon’s Arthur Mold Bowling to A.N. Hornby (1901)
However, in the 1900s there were attempts to provide local coverage of cricket matches; that is, films which would appeal to the audience of a particular town or county instead of aiming for a national audience. The Yorkshire filmmaker Jasper Redfern made a number of such films (he probably made the film of W.G. Grace at Trent Bridge but otherwise none of his cricket films are known to survive). Mitchell & Kenyon, now well-known for their actuality records of Edwardian life chiefly in northern England, regularly filmed cricket matches, though as with their football films the emphasis was on the crowds and the occasion as much as the play. An exception is the intriguing film illustrated above, showing Lancashire bowler A.H. Mold attempting to demonstrate that his controversial bowling action was legitimate (it looks OK to me), a very early example of a film being set up as evidence in a dispute. The batsman is A.N. Hornby.
The film record is not that much better for the 1910s, partly because the intervention of the First World War meant a lot less top class cricket and consequently far fewer cricket films. The newsreels were still finding their feet as a form, and they did not really take up the challenge of filming cricket at this period. A number of films from the teens exist at the BFI National Archive, while some interesting examples are held British Pathé, available to view on their site (do note that Pathé’s dating of these films is very approximate):
Sometimes films can be found which are no longer films. I’ve previously posted on film strips to be found in a cricket instructional book, A.C. MacLaren’s The Perfect Batsman: J.B. Hobbs in Action. Though published in 1925, the films of Hobbs it uses were made in 1914 by Cherry Kearton Ltd. It’s not the same film as appears on the British Pathé site, noted above. I’ve re-animated the clips, albeit crudely, and have placed two sequences on YouTube, adding a small something to the meagre archive of cricket films in the 1910s.
Re-animated plates 2, 8 and 10 from The Perfect Batsman: J.B. Hobbs in Action, showing Hobbs in 1914
Plates 3, 6 and 9 from The Perfect Batsman
It is when we get to the 1920s that the cricket film record starts to become very rich indeed. The British newsreels started to cover the game avidly, sometimes county games but especially Test matches. The films were not long – generally two or three minutes at most, and thus had huge challenges trying to document a day or more’s sport in such a tiny space. And yet they did, with a good amount of skill, luck and sleight of hand.
The Topical Budget newsreel film at the top of this post from 1926, when England regained the Ashes from Australia after fourteen years (and humiliation five years earlier in 1921), is a good example. It shows the procession of Australian wickets at the Oval ground on the final day’s play, neatly cutting between action on the pitch and the scoreboard. Sometimes the camera encompasses both the bowler and the batsman in the single shot, so that we know we are witnessing a complete action. More often, however, we see the bowler, then there is a cut to the batsman playing the shot. Most of the time the ball the batsman plays is not the bowl that we saw bowled to him in the previous shot. The art of editing to make us believe what the filmmaker wants us to believe extends beyond the fiction film. With up to ten wickets scheduled to fall in an innings that lasts several hours, it was an impossible for a cameraman with a few hundred feet of film at his disposal to capture every one. The film shows on a number of occasions a ball bowled, then a batsman walking away disconsonantly, without showing us how he got out. Remarkably on a couple of occasions we do see the actual fall of a wicket – a triumph for the quick-witted cameraman.
The newsreels dramatise cricket as much as they document it. The films are composed as battles; the assault by the one side with the ball, the response by the other wielding the bat. The Oval Test film expresses in its construction the pressure exerted by the England team’s bowling and the crumbling of the Australian resistance, cultminating in the joyous invasion of the crowd (no such scenes allowed these days) at the film’s climax. It is a triumphal film about a sporting triumph.
There are hundreds of British newsreels of cricket available to view online, on the British Pathé and ITN Source sites. For Pathé, click on the Advanced Search option, type ‘cricket’ into the Description box, then select 1920s from the Decades option lower down the screen. There are some 200 films available. For ITN Source, click on Advanced Search, type ‘cricket’ into the search box, tick the box marked New Classics, then select 1920s as the decade – there are 58 results. For anyone who knows their cricket history (and it was a golden period for cricket – Hobbs, Sutcliffe, Rhodes, Gregory, Grimmett, Woodfull, Woolley, Hendren, Bardsley, hammond, then in 1930 the arrival of the phenomenon that was Don Bradman), there are such riches to be found.
A blatant recreation of Hobbs hitting the runs by which he achieved his 126th century, from The Life of Jack Hobbs, from http://www.britishpathe.com
And it’s not all newsreels. There are training films, interviews (silent ones), and longer films. British Pathé has one of the most notable longer cricket films of the period, The Life of Jack Hobbs (1925), a biographical documentary of England’s greatest batsman of the period (or arguably any other period). The film shows Hobbs relaxing at home, demonstrating shots, playing in games, and securing his famous 126th century, thereby beating a record set by W.G. Grace. The film is available in four reels – one, two and three plus offcuts. It doggedly follows Hobbs round the country while he kept on not quite scoring the 100 runs the nation was willing him to score, before he did so at Taunton. The film captures the moment, but also gets Hobbs to recreate the shot in close-up with the camera hanging right over him mid-pitch.
This illustrates the degree to which cricketers were willing to co-operate with the cameras to show themselves to their best advantage. Hobbs had signed an exclusive deal with United International Corporation, producers of the film, and in his autobiography he has some interesting things to say about working with film companies as the price of fame.
The largest collection of cricket films from the silent era is that held by the BFI National Archive, which holds the Topical Budget newsreel, something of a cricket specialist, plus amateur films, documentaries, local topicals, animation films and advertisements. The BFI also holds one or two fiction films with a cricket film. The 1925 feature film A Daughter of Love features a cricketing hero (played by John Stuart) whose marriage at the end of the film sees the happy couple process between two lines of cricketers with their bats raised to form a row of arches. Just a few of the BFI’s cricket films are available online, alas, a couple of them included here.
The other major source of cricket films from this period is Australia, of course. There are twenty-five silent era cricket films given on the catalogue of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, and clips from a number of these can be seen on the excellent australian screen site. Here are some examples:
Just last month the NFSA unveiled a new digital master of the earliest known surviving film of test cricket action in Australia, filmed in December 1910 by Pathé’s Animated Gazette at the Sydney Cricket Ground when they were playing South Africa. Tantalisingly brief, it does at least show good camera positioning at an angle to the pitch to impart the right amount of dynamism.
South Africa v Australia, 9 December 1910. The film is described in loving detail on the NFSA blog
For a number of years I used to programme cricket films at the National Film Theatre in London. Others more expert than I would present the films on the stage, talking through the films and identifying every player, while noted cricketers from not quite such bygone ages sat in the audience and everyone sighed nostalgically for an era when giants seemed to walk the pitches of England, when times were nobler, the game was better played, and everyone shown in monochrome was so much greater than those wretched souls who toiled so desperately for England in the real world. I’ve never cared so much for a nostalgia which always places the past above the present, and believe firmly that the present generation of players would very probably humble the greats of yesteryear were they ever able somehow to have the two compete on the pitch.
But very fleeting nature of the early cricket film records enhances the greatness somehow. The sturdiness of a Hobbs off-drive, the beguiling spin of Clarrie Grimmett, the stylish nonchalance of Ranjitsinhji, the imperious confidence of W.G. Grace – so little of them survives on film, yet what is there, played over and over again, encapsulates the legend. We see just enough to have the tale told. Film is a romantic medium, and actuality film can sometimes be the most romantic of all.
Verdi theatre, Pordenone, with book fair in the background
And so we come to our final report on the 2010 Pordenone silent film festival. The Bioscope’s editor was on the plane home by this point, but happily our cub reporter The Mysterious X was on the spot to brings this account of day eight’s offering (Saturday, October 9th).
The final day; always a source of mixed feelings. On the one hand, that end-of-a-holiday sensation, saying goodbye to friends both Italian and international that we may not see for another year; on the other that the next day represents a return to normality, the chance of a proper breakfast, your own comfy bed, and more than five hours sleep per night.
But a change of venue this morning – The Verdi being prepared, and the orchestra rehearsed, for the evening show – and we all take the pleasant stroll up the Via Garibaldi to Cinemazero, Pordenone’s arthouse cinema, for the morning. Smaller, more modern, just about enough room for the audience numbers, plenty of legroom if you do get a seat. No pianos this year; we have a morning of silents in their sound versions.
Starting with Daigaku No Wakadama (Young Master at University) (Japan 1933); the notes don’t reveal whether the synchronised music score is from a later reissue print or whether we are already in a transitional period in Japanese terms. The film itself seems transitional though; as in the other Shochiku films we’ve seen this week, there is a tangible sense of a nation sat on the cusp between tradition and modernity, East and West … and not entirely comfortably. The Young Master of the title is a star player of the university rugby team; so we’re western and modern right away; except the rugby club is run along the lines of an officers’ mess in Victorian India; arcane rules of behaviour, regimented discipline, strictly hierarchical … so we’re ripped out of that feeling immediately. The Young Master is also heir to his father’s wholesalery, run on ultra-traditional lines; Father does not approve of rugby, is unsure of the benefits of university versus commercial experience, while the Young Master is not overkeen on inheriting such a rigid existence quite yet; he is, within the constraints of his environment, a practical joker and an apprentice playboy. In such a spirit, he invites young Hoshichuyo, an apprentice Geisha in love with his father’s clerk, to watch a training session incognito … but she is recognised when his sister arrives, goes into hiding in his changing room locker, whereupon she is discovered. She is banished … and so is he, from the rugby club. Further complications ensue (the clerk is betrothed to the sister, and so on) which need to be sorted out before The Young Master can be reinstated in time to play in The Big Game.
So it has the structure of a farce comedy, but is (I assumed anyway) a breezy romantic drama more than a laughfest; it did have comical moments, particularly during the climactic game when we see the legs of a downed player whip out of frame, as he is unceremoniously dragged off while the scrum is being set … it’s possible the political manoeuverings of the rugby club leaders were intended as satirical comedy, if it didn’t register as such with me. It was certainly more light-hearted than other examples we had seen this week, and a good start to the day. Incidentally, the film also featured a nicely anachronistic piece of set-dressing; in the apartment of one of the characters, I think that of the clerk, were a couple of Hollywood talkie posters; a French-language one-sheet for All Quiet on The Western Front, and another for an early Cary Grant film, The Eagle and the Hawk. So, if anyone ever asks you if Cary Grant was ever in a silent film, you can now respond “Only in Japan” …
Moana, from MoMA
The second offering I wasn’t planning on seeing; and as it was getting lively in the Cinemazero I decided to catch five minutes while standing at the edge, before getting some sunshine. Robert Flaherty’s Moana (USA 1926) was being presented with a soundtrack compiled in the ’80’s by Robert’s daughter Monica, who had been in Samoa as a very young girl during the filming; she had taken great pains in recording the sounds of Samoa, and recreating the speech of the on-screen participants, fifty years after the event; the ethics, the anthropological niceties of these efforts I’ll leave to others better qualified, but I can see why she would have wanted to make one of her father’s less well known projects more approachable for modern audiences. This was also being presented as a work-in-progress; I understand no viewable film print exists of this project at the moment; that is, however, the plan; we were watching a DVD being played off a laptop. I understand that this all went horribly wrong for a while after I exited … the feedback I got was not overwhelmingly positive on a number of points.
Back in again for the final film from the Shochiku strand: Tokyo No Eiyu (A Hero Of Tokyo) (Japan 1935), and again, a transitional dialogue-free film with a musical soundtrack. Directed by Shimizu, as were many of the films shown on the first days of the festival, this reverted to the template of a dark, tragedic exploration of the moral codes and hierarchies within Japanese society of the thirties. We meet a widowed businessman with a young son; feeling that he cannot devote enough time to his upbringing he remarries (for convenience, it seems) a widowed mother of two other children. After some initial sibling friction is played out, Father does a bunk; his business was selling shares in dodgy stocks, and he’d been found out. This leaves the mother with no income and no means to support herself, her two children plus this new stepson; she does what a woman has to do in a Shochiku film; she joins the sex trade, surreptitiously, unknown by all her family …
Fast forward fifteen years or so; her daughter is on the point of marrying into a ‘good’ family; they enquire into the family history, and the truth emerges. As does the father, up to his old tricks … at which point SHE feels the need to apologise to HIM for the shame …
At least in this film the outrage of the director towards the status quo is made obvious to a modern audience; this is a sharper critique than the preceding, far longer, films: more pointed, and to the point. The performances, of Mitsuko Yoshikawa as the woman trodden down by the societal rules, debasing herself to keep her family together; and of Yukichi Iwata as the bewildered, then angry son, are superb. While I wouldn’t recommend this film to anyone in terms of entertainment, it
was for me the best of this strand. The bad news is, I’m told, that nearly all of the extant Japanese silents have been shown at Pordenone now; unless there are new discoveries … that’s our lot.
Privideniye, Kotoroye ne Vozvrashchayetsya (The Ghost that Never Returns), from blog.nova-cinema.org
Back down the Via Garibaldi to the Posta for lunch … creature of habit that I am … before the afternoon’s offering, Abram Room’s Privideniye, Kotoroye ne Vozvrashchayetsya (The Ghost that Never Returns) (USSR 1930). It’s a stunning film, a tour de force combination of avant garde elements within an adventure film format – with a more than a dash of revolutionary propaganda, naturally. Our hero is a political prisoner in an unnamed South American country. Sentenced to vegetate in a semi-surrealist prison, a message is got to him that a strike is being planned in the oilfields by his colleagues on the outside; meanwhile his once-a-decade one day’s parole is imminent; the catch is that if the parole’s rules are broken, an armed guard is handily placed to execute summary justice. It becomes a series of battles of wits; between the prison authorities and the prisoner, then individually between the prisoner and his guard, as he jumps a train and treks across a desert wasteland towards home, the oilfields … and freedom ??? It’s utterly unlike any other Soviet film I’ve seen … aside from its politics … it has elements of the Soviet avant garde, but equally hints of Expressionism and Hollywood … a really interesting blend of styles that suited its subject matter, and made it more persuasive than most Soviet propaganda, I would imagine. Certainly more entertaining …
The final presentation of the French Clowns followed; Tartinette to Zizi … I saw a couple, not impressed again, to be honest … a lot of work must have been put into researching these films, and getting the prints here … but the presentation of them in large chunks in alphabetical order chased away all but the most ardent devotee … and lost the films the opportunity of making new converts. A great shame.
So out to the Posta for one last appointment with a Spritz Aperol, to find that the usually milling Saturday evening crowd had been augmented by people admiring a vintage car display, half a dozen beautifully restored thirties vehicles lined up, and, for a fortunate few, giving little joyrides around the town. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much joy on one man’s face as when Phil Carli returned from his …
And so to the finale, perhaps even a climax; the full live orchestral presentation of William Wellman’s Wings (USA 1927), featuring the Photoplay print, and the Orchestra Mitteleuropea conducted by Mark Fitz-Gerald playing the Carl Davis score. It’s one of his finest, I think, that great March as the main theme, some nice leitmotifs reappearing throughout as appropriate … very effective.
And, what with all the sound effects of the battle sequences having to come from the orchestra, I would imagine a nightmare to play. Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, they nailed it. It’s a powerful film – not just the legendary flying sequences, or the breathtaking battlefront climax … but the subtle underplaying of emotions, too … sometimes Clara and Buddy go slightly over but Arlen, and particularly Henry B. Walthall convey the suppressed emotion just beneath the surface to great effect.
But it is famous for those war sequences, and deservedly so; on the big screen you get to see so much more of it; on a small screen you don’t see the aircraft growing from the smallest dot to ambush the pontoon bridge, or the staff car … you don’t quite see the battlefield extending right to the horizons … and you’re involved, you’re in the air, or in the mud, with them. And did the shot of the white crosses covering the whole landscape inform the similar shot in Attenborough’s Oh! What A Lovely War? I would just hesitate from calling it the perfect WW1 film; for that we would need a little more Gary Cooper, a little less El Brendel, a good deal fewer animated bubbles in Paris … with the latter, a nice idea that was way overused … actually, that applies to El too. And I struggle to quite see how anyone with Clara living next door would pursue the rather more watery charms of Jobyna Ralston. However much an advantage being from The City conferred. But this is nitpicking; you sit back, let the film and the orchestra take you to a time past; either WWI, or the days in the twenties when such presentations were daily occurrences in the larger cities … it was a terrific way to end the Giornate of 2010.
The Verdi at night
Was it a classic year? Not quite, I feel, though there were, as always, cinematic experiences to cherish, lessons to learn, doors opened to unsuspected areas of interest; films that would surprise, or delight, or shock, but seldom leave without further thought. And certainly films that you will be unlikely to have a second chance of seeing, as here, as they were designed to be seen.
I’m very aware that I haven’t mentioned many of the musicians’ performances; this was entirely down to a happy event chez Sosin (many congratulations, Donald and Joanna) which meant that after his (superb) show with Jean Darling on the Wednesday he hotfooted it back home, and the remainder of the Giornate stalwarts shared out the films between them – and naturally, I failed to take notes as to who ended up playing for which film. Needless to say Messrs Brand, Buchwald, Carli, Horne, and Sweeney were all playing at the top of their game despite there being some challenging films in the programme. The Book Fair was much reduced, perched on the third floor of The Verdi, but I got hold of the one DVD I was after (Cento Anni Fa, the Bologna-compiled set of Suffragette films) so I was happy.
The social side, of course, was as good as ever, new friendships made, old friendships renewed; the Giornate staff and volunteers helpful and patient, the locals as welcoming and understanding (and as amused by our attempts at Italian ) as ever, the food and drink … I look forward to what goodies are to be pulled from the bag for us next year, the 30th renewal of the World’s most important silent film festival. I hope to see you there …
Huge thanks once again to The Mysterious X, who has donned the domino, cast a cloak about their person, and slipped away mysteriously as ever into the inky dark night. I would concur with X’s assessment of the festival – not quite a classic, but funding constraints had their effect upon the programme. We missed the variety that would have been there with another strand of programming (such as the Leo McCarey shorts which were promised early on); with just the one screen available, maybe the Japanese films (some of which were very long) took up a bit too much space. But that’s only by comparison with earlier festivals. The riches on offer were real riches, and there were major discoveries every day. I was particularly encouraged by the new faces I saw the festival – students from Italy and the USA especially – which suggests that the festival is not just showing the same films to the same crowd but continues to reach out to those who need to discover silents for the first time. Tell that to your funders, guys – you are doing the right things.
It is perhaps the most iconic of all photographic images. Eadweard Muybridge‘s running man (he made several photographic sequences of a man running, but I’m thinking of the one illustrated here) conjures up the very idea of photography. It has captured the instant, has brought a moment out of its specific time into all time. We can hear the click of the shutter. It is one of a sequence of twelve, any one of which can seen as representative, as all document the same action, but the point where both legs leave the air is the most quintessentially photographic. It is the image for which photography was made.
It is the point where the nineteenth century turns into the modern age. It doesn’t just offer a view of the past – it makes the past coterminous with us. He started running in 1887 and he is running still in 2010. The plain background accentuates the timelessness, leaving us nothing to contemplate save bare, unaccommodated man. It sums up who we are: hurtling forward from who knows where to who knows where, yet never really going anywhere. It simultaneously celebrates and laughs at progress.
The image has classical resonances. There is an echo of Ancient Greek statuary and the Olympic ideal, but the stronger echo is with Leonardo dan Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man‘ or the ‘Proportions of Man’, the idealised, perfectly proportioned figure inscribed within a circle and a square. Muybridge’s man, similarly ideally proportioned, is inscribed within a square. And Da Vinci’s image has an intimation of motion about it – the figure’s body is static but there are two sets of arms and two sets of legs, indicating that idealised man can only be revealed in movement. I run therefore I am.
The image is about time itself. Just as in times past a skull might be used as a memento mori, a means for the observer to contemplate the death that must come to us all, the running man obliges us to contemplate the ceaseless flow of time. The image seeks to defeat time by capturing the moment – the science of sequence photography that Muybridge inspired was called chronophotography, which means ‘picturing time’. A photograph does not capture time in any actual sense; it is a chemical (or now digital) illusion. But it does capture the idea of time, a thing for contemplation.
The image also represents the historical moment between the still image and the motion picture. Muybridge was interested in dissecting motion by capturing that which could not be detected by the naked eye, namely the individual elements of motion. He was not trying to create motion pictures (though he did experiment with these as a sideline). Motion pictures do not reveal the invisible as such; they replicate visible reality. But Muybridge’s vision and technical accomplishment led the way to motion pictures as others built on the logic of what he had established. It is right that he is the usual starting point for histories of film.
The running man is also telling us a story. One of the most engrossing elements of the Muybridge exhibition currently on show at Tate Britain is how it leads us to imagine Muybridge playing out the psychodrama in his head following his acquittal for the murder of his wife’s lover (and she died soon after). Much has been made of the women in his sequence photographs, shown as they are in submissive, playful, dancing, teasing, eroticised or domestic roles. The men, however, are all going somewhere, doing physical, masculine things – lifting, wrestling, throwing, marching, chopping, running. Muybridge himself appears (naked) in some sequences, and just as we can see all of the women in the photographs as Flora Muybridge, so all the men are Eadweard Muybridge, emblematised as the man running for the sake of running, wanting to be doing something that it is good for man to be seen doing, without really knowing why.
Then there is athletics itself. This is not just an image of a man out of time. It is a photograph, or a set of photographs, of an athlete. Competitive sports became hugely important in the late nineteenth century, and in 1878 Muybridge photographed members of the San Francisco Olympic Club. In 1884 he started work at the University of Pennsylvania, producing hundreds of photographic sequences, many of them showing athletes from the university. American universities were hotbeds of the new enthusiasm for sports, and sport was becoming an important expression of what it meant to be a (male) American. The running man is someone who ran with a purpose, who knew what it meant to run.
The sequence photographs of the running man did not come out of nowhere. Produced as part of Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion series (1887), they came as the culmination of an exceptional career in photography. As the exhibition makes clear, Muybridge was a photographer of considerable accomplishments long before he started photographing galloping horses and running men. His work ranged from stereoscopes (3D images) to extraordinary panoramas. He was a photographer of landscapes and cityscapes, always able to capture something beyond the mere replication of a reality. Even before he began his motion studies in the late 1870s he was revealing something of the mystery of time and motion in his work. The necessarily long exposures that came with wet plate photography meant that the apparent instant is really a record of the passage of seconds. The passing of time is reflected in the stillness.
The running man as an instantly recognisable symbol of what it is to be human is a part of modern culture. The man running ever forwards yet getting nowhere has been used in pop videos such as Talking Heads’ Road to Nowhere and U2’s Lemon. Videos inspired by Muybridge’s work, often inspired by the figure running endlessly against a black background with white lines, can be found all over such sites as YouTube and Vimeo, as modern artists demonstrate a compulsion to revisit his vision. Muybridge sequences have been used on posters, book covers, murals, television trailers and T-shirts. The running man even runs endlessly across twelve frames on the lenticular ruler I bought at the exhibition.
And then there is the science. For all that we can philosophise about time, or see the image(s) as depicting a crisis in the idea of masculinity, or see them for the inspiration they gave to artists such as Duchamp, Bacon and Twombly (and Muybridge wanted to inspire artists), the running man and all the other Animal Locomotion sequences were commissioned by a body of scientists. The University of Pennsylvania paid him $40,000 to undertake work of a scientific character, and the committee than oversaw his work included an anatomist, a neurologist and a physiologist. The running man was there to be studied. He was demonstrating the processes of human motion, revealing action and musculature as it had not been possible to show before. The white grid on the black background is there for scientific reasons: to gain the measure of a man.
The running man is not a complete work in itself. It/he is part of Plate 62 of Animal Locomotion; one of twelve images taken in succession (plus another twelve images giving a side-on view of the same action). It is one twelfth of a work that one cannot ever pin down. Looking at the twelve images in sequence does not really tell us what the work signifies; looking at one of the images does not give us the full work; looking at the sequence animated falsifies what Muybridge tried to achieve. And the man did not run forever, as the animations suggest. He ran from one end of the track to another. Then he stopped. Muybridge’s work is endlessly mysterious to contemplate.
The Muybridge exhibition at the Tate is a marvellous experience, and you should go if you can. It covers every aspect of his remarkable career, clearly explained and illuminatingly displayed. There are his haunting images of the Yosemite, the breathtaking panoramas of San Francisco, hypnotically beautiful cyanotypes (the blue-toned contact proofs from which published collotypes were made), and a Zoopraxiscope projector with which he exhibited proto-animation ‘films’ on disc based on his photographic sequences. A little more context, in the form of the works of his peers and those he has influenced, would have been welcome, but of his work there can be no complaint. OK, perhaps just one. In the exhibition there is no Plate 62. There is Plate 63, in which the same athlete runs a little faster, and not quite as iconically (he leans forward too much). The quintessential Muybridgean image isn’t there.