Silent Studies in the Kino – According to Tara

For a long time I thought I didn’t like silent cinema. It’s easy to be prejudiced against an era or a genre of film when your first encounter had you looking through the wrong keyhole.

It was about seven or eight years ago that I went to a silent film screening in Bristol. I can’t remember which film it was but I know it was a slapstick comedy with either Chaplin or Keaton, and it featured blackface. I was horrified and, quite honestly, shocked. I’d never seen a film with blackface exhibited publicly before and there had been no trigger warning before the screening. There was no context given and there I was, amidst a room full of white middle-class folk laughing their asses off.

On a less serious but still ultimately off-putting note, the music was poorly matched to the film. It was jaunty, whimsical and upbeat all the while. I hated everything about the screening and, as a result, was pretty much turned off silent cinema for life.

Or so I thought.

Several years later I met Dr Peter Walsh. He’s a feminist and a film scholar. His expertise is in early and silent cinema. He seemed immediately like a great guy who doesn’t endorse jaunty, inappropriate, crap music – or blackface. So, I thought, maybe there’s more to this silent cinema malarkey than I’ve given it credit for…

And so, with curiosity and hope, I invited Pete to run a silent cinema course at Flicks. I was first to enroll.

alice-guy-1_5341507

The course exceeded the foolishness of my keyhole metaphor and opened an actual door to previously inaccessible cinema. Throughout the course I was introduced to The Silent Feminists: America’s First Women Directors (1993) which included the totally amazing Alice Guy who experimented with Gaumont’s sync sound system known as the Chronophone until such time as she got married and had to resign. She continued to work elsewhere after Gaumont gave her the boot but her husband kinda got in the way.

While a woman being nudged out of the way by dudes is an all too familiar story in film history it was great to at least hear about some of the women who made a mark before the patriarchy pushed them aside because documentaries (un)like this one far too often have us believing that women were altogether absent. Turns out it’s not just funny white dudes doing blackface after all. In fact, Lois Weber, who also features in the documentary, refused to work on one particular film, taking a stand against blackface – yep, there were heroes fighting for what’s right even in the early era.

postcard

Course, I can’t help but wonder why The Silent Feminists, a forty-five minute documentary about women in a field where women are often absent from the dominant historical narrative, has yet to be released on DVD or BluRay. Please, BFI, help a sister out?

I also discovered that not all silent cinema is scored with unimaginative organ playing (like The Lost World, 1925) or jaunty piano. Having seen clips from Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) many times before, I was amazed to discover that I have never seen the full film, restored, coloured, and gloriously scored by Air. I was also amazed at how many inappropriate scores have been recorded and released with Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929). Personally, I like it properly silent: no score. We also had a series of great, and divisive, discussions after watching Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) with a Giorgio Moroder score.

images

Perhaps most surprisingly was that I chose, of my own volition, to watch silent movies at home – not so much for homework or even extra curricular viewing, but just for the fun of it and with a genuine interest. Jean Painlevé’s wonderful sea urchins on our old never-before-rented VHS of Surrealism and Science (1925) and a beautifully scored, visually exciting and honestly suspenseful Swedish horror film, The Phantom Carriage (1921) were two such treats.

Silent Studies in the Kino was our first foray into adult education courses at Flicks and, from the perspective of both student and course administrator, I can honestly say that it was so darn good it not only makes me want to schedule more classes in the Kino but it also changed my previously rigid opinion of an entire era of cinema. Cheers, Pete.

Dr Peter Walsh is Co-director and Co-curator of South West Silents and can found on twitter as @soylent_grey.

 

Advertisements

South West Silents Speak Up! SPIONE

“Almighty God… what power is at play here?” Spione

Spione DVD Cover

It probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise that I’ve decided to write about Fritz Lang’s Spione (1927) again. After all, I have written more about this great super spy thriller than probably any other film in the past decade. The reason for this? There are many reasons to be honest, but one key factor is that I still believe the film isn’t celebrated enough, if it is celebrated at all. Even now, after a very successful commercial release by Masters of Cinema, Spione is still eclipsed by the films Fritz Lang made before (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, Die Nibelungen, Metropolis) and shadowed by the ones he made after (Frau im Mond, M, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse).

So why am I flying the flag once again for Spione? And why now? Well, it’s all down to the fact that a member of British Intelligence is returning for his 24th cinematic outing this month, apparently his name is Bond, James Bond or something!

1$_V?_Job Name

Anyway, with the release of Spectre (2015) not only do we see the return of Bond we also see the long awaited return of that most devious of devious criminal and terrorist organizations: ‘the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion’, or, better known in short, SPECTRE (the clue of a return is in the title of the film, btw). And with that we could (I say could) see the return of SPECTRE’s head honcho Ernst Stavro Blofeld. It is worth briefly noting at this point that EON Productions have not publicly stated that Blofeld is actually in SPECTRE, but, throughout the publicity campaign one particular character seems to be singled out as a possible candidate for the cat-stroking-Mao-suited super villain. But, I am not planning to name names here –  after all, I’m supposed to be writing about Spione!

Spione

Now, when it comes to Spione’s wheelchair bound villain, Haghi (played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge) and Blofeld there does seem to be a connection, a feeling that these two characters are almost cut from the same cloth. To be honest, they aren’t really villains; they’re more like super-villains in my eyes. And, when you watch Spione, you will begin to notice the connection as well. Both characters are always ahead of the game when they battle our heroes and they usually have the final say… most of the time.

Spione 2

But let’s not get too serious here. Both characters are great fun to watch and continually dominate their scenes. Haghi, with his Lucifer looks and full black suit, and Blofeld (depending on which actor you are thinking about) with his trademark white cat and Mao suit are most certainly well-groomed visually for the cinema – so well-groomed, in fact, that their characteristics continue to shine through even today.

Blofeld

For instance, Blofeld has had his fair share of mimics over the years, from the Austin Powers films to Police Academy (that’s Police Academy 6: City Under Siege (1989) for all the nerds out there) and God only knows how many times Blofeld’s trademarks have appeared on television depicting a villain of sorts; even Alan Partridge gets his shoe-in (that’s Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge for the even bigger nerds). All of the above shows the popularity of a character like Blofeld, not bad for a character who has appeared on-screen for nearly forty years. But could this be because of the continuing success of the Bond films?

In Haghi’s case, to my knowledge, his persona only appeared in Walter Forde’s Would You Believe It (1929), Britain’s most successful British comedy of the 1920s; however, it is a clear indication of how popular the Haghi character had become within the year of Spione’s release.

Blofeld 1

But while Haghi is very much forgotten by most cinephiles today, his influence can still be seen in modern-day cinema; he is almost a template for later cinematic super villains such as Die Hard’s Hans Gruber, Se7en’s John Doe, Darth Vader, The Joker or even more recently Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (2007).

So the next time you sit down and watch a Bond film, preferably one with Blofeld in, don’t forget that he is part of a pantheon of super villains which goes way back to a film like Spione, from a time when the villains didn’t really need white cats!

Written by James Harrison of South West Silents for 20th Century Flicks.

South West Silents Speak Up: Fantômas

Welcome to the first in a series of posts from our friends, South West Silents.

While we here in the video store can talk about Hal Hartley, 1980s horror and Nicolas Cage movies until well after closing time, we’re not so au fait with the silent stuff. That’s why it’s good to have friends in quiet places. If you’re wondering where that is, it’s over here. Read on friends!

SOUTH WEST SILENTS RECOMMENDS… FANTOMAS

by James Harrison

‘The first great movie experience’ David Thompson

Fantomas_-_The_Phantom_Crook

There is no argument about it. Louis Feuillade had an impeccable track record for bringing chaos to the cinema screen. Over the course of his directing career, which only lasted just under 20 years (he made roughly 600 films between 1906 – 1924) Feuillade would bring audiences an extensive amount of assassinations, a big concentration of exploding buildings, the destruction of national monuments, bridges and the French public transport system; to be honest, Feuillade’s creations made the likes of SPECTRE look like a bunch of amateurs!

fantomas-(1913)-large-picture

And that is the fun thing about Feuilade’s first major serial, Fantômas (1913-14). You hardly ever find yourself rooting for the good guys such as Inspector Juve (played by Scottich born Edmund Breon) or his collaborator, the reporter Jérôme Fandor (Georges Melchior). You are always rooting for the bad guys. In this case, the master criminal Fantômas (René Navarre) who is not only incredibly ruthless and cunning but also very well dressed throughout (apart from the full cover black suit).

img-1

The same can be said for many later villains in cinema of course, Robert Mitchum’s ‘preacher killer’ Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter (1955), the many incarnations of Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader in the Star Wars films, Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty in Blade Runner (1982) as well as Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber in Die Hard (1988); although, Gruber is a personal favourite of mine to be honest. These are all villains who, in many ways, you want to keep watching instead the main protagonists. They are all very well dressed as well, apart from Rutger Hauer I guess.

fantomas (1)

It is also worth noting that the likes of the villains listed above were cut from the same cloth as Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) and Haghi (also played Rudolf Klein-Rogge) the criminal mastermind of one of Lang’s most underrated of thrillers, Spione (1928). These earlier villains were most certainly highly influenced by Fantômas, especially when it came to the subject of bringing chaos to a contemporary society as well as the ability to dramatically change their appearance and identity within a few seconds.

There are however flaws with Fantômas. The use of the camera in particular is incredibly simple and basic. A scene which could last almost 10 minutes could well be shown in one single shot (with the odd cutaway if you are lucky). Even for 1913/1914 standards in filmmaking the camerawork in Fantômas is painfully basic for the time. Other filmmakers such as Evgenii Bauer and of course D. W. Griffith were advancing the use of the camera in every film they made. Sadly none of this transpires in Fantômas. So you have been warned.

Juve_versus_Fant_mas-626521238-large

However, do not let this turn you off. Fantômas is thrilling throughout because of what happens in front of the camera and that is the important factor here; the sense of, where are we going now? What is going to happen next? In many ways, Fantômas is one of those pioneering titles which formed the basis for future film and television serials; so your recent addition to HBO and other Television programmes could well be blamed on Fantômas as well.

If anything it’s a key title in the history of cinema, and one which establishes many themes  we would see throughout the future of cinema, even today! Enjoy!

Written by James Harrison of South West Silents for 20th Century Flicks.