Sunday, 1 February 2015

Classic film… The Classical World in Silent Cinema - British Museum

OK, it’s been some time since I had to rouse myself for a 10 AM lecture but… on a Saturday!? We were gathered at the British Museum for a study day examining the fascination of early cinema with classical Greece and Rome. Apart from the chance to relive my miss-spent student-hood, this was an opportunity to view many early films from 1897 to 1913 which only exist on film, are rarely screened and are not commercially available.

The day is part of ongoing international research project co-directed by Maria Wyke of University College London and Pantelis Michelakis of Bristol University who were both present along with Nick Lowe of Royal Holloway University and Bryony Dixon, the Curator of Silent Film at the BFI.

They had lined up fifteen films from archives across Europe and had commissioned Stephen Horne to improvise accompaniment on a variety of instruments including Flute, Percussion, Accordion, Vibes and Piano. I’ve often said that Stephen’s playing is so inventive and varied we could listen to it all day: today we almost did as he worked like a Trojan from 10 to 4pm…

Maria Wyke introduced proceedings saying that their objective was to understand the links between the early flourishing of European cinema and antiquity: were film makers not only borrowing from nineteenth century literature and art for ideas but also legitimacy, trying to prove that the new art form was on a level and not just taking the contemporary fascinations as source material.

Inspiration? Locusta testing in Nero's presence the poison prepared for Britannicus by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre (1876)

Session 1 – French shorts 1897 to 1910

The first session featured French shorts and included the earliest film I’ve ever seen in cinema…

Nero Trying Poisons on Some Slaves (1897). This early Lumière brothers film was the very first to represent the ancient world in cinema and was made just a couple of years after their famous train arrived at its station in Paris. At just under a minute the plot was simple but so was Mr Armstrong’s first footstep on the Moon… how he got there is a whole different matter.

The Temptation of St Anthony (1898) featured director Georges Méliès as the titular saint who is distracted by the constant appearance of playful young women but he stays strong in spite of their cheeky hair tousling antics…The Mermaid (1903) by the same director had some lovely tricks and composition including a fish tank that moves towards camera before a mermaid materializes inside: he’d come on a lot in five years.

Surely Georges Méliès wasn't mocking the Church?
Diana’s Resentment (1910) brought much colourised motion to the ancient world… whilst the next film Creon and Mirtyl (190?) is a mystery about which very little is known. It is however a very funny colourised account of how Mirtyl’s aunts try and help her get over her shyness with her warrior husband.

The Vestal (1910) Directed by Albert Capellani drew its story from an opera and was also very colourful and, unfortunately, very damaged. Bryony Dixon explained that the original stencil  colours at the time had by now been affected by other factors with red decolourisation from water damage and tonal shifts from the initial copying onto 1990’s colour film. She said that we needed to treat ancient film “like a Greek vase” to re-colour as originally intended and discover whether the tints were intended to portray accuracy or heighten impression.

Luitz-Morat meets a colourful end in Le fils de Locuste (1911)
Heliogabale (1910) was directed by Andre Camettes and featured a misbehaving Roman Emperor who, taking a shine to one particular Vestal, kidnaps her. The people rally to save her and throw him into the Tiber… which was where the original ended up but following a rather more complex series of events.

Session 2 – Historical and mythical narrative 1910-11

The second sequence featured later films with narrative complexity: the new medium learned fast and developed its sophisticated language remarkably quickly.

Belisaire (1910) feature the unusual setting of a late Byzantine court and a tale of general Belisaire. Belisaire is Emperor Justinian’s favourite but the empress Theodora is also impressed with him… He is already married and so, unable to have him for herself, she plots to blind him by pouring acid onto his eyes. Luckily his wife spots her arranging the scheme with her henchmen – in classic silent-film stalking style… and he is able to overturn the attempt to disable him and then to return to the court to accuse the traitors in its midst…

This film included a good deal of location shooting, making the most of the Mediterranean light as natural landscapes began to play an important narrative role.

Classically composed... The Son of Locusta (1911)
The Son of Locusta (1911) directed by Louis Feuillade, was the second film to feature Nero but showed far more narrative subtlety than the first from 1897: ordinary people still die but we see more of their personal tragedy. Nero’s poisoner-in-chief, Locusta, prepares a lethal draft for Nero’s brother Britannicus but the plot goes awry in a most personal way as the urn carrying the poisoned wine gets diverted to another…

The Fall of Troy (1911) directed by Piero Fosco, Giovanni Pastore (later to direct Cabiria) and Romano Luigi Borgnetto was one of the few on the day’s bill to have been restored showing how the blockbusters of the time could look with an account of the critical battle in the tug of war over Helen.

Helen and Paris travel in comfort
This is an advanced film with the journey of Helen and Paris to Troy shown with them in a giant shell with cherubs flying around them - double exposed on a moving diorama. There were also some nifty camera pans – early indicators for Cabirian fluidity.

The initial Grecian attack on the walls of Troy is well realised with a tower entering the fray before a hail of boulders forces the Greeks back, they retreat to their ships but leave a suspiciously large horse behind. The people of Troy have to partially dismantle their gate to allow the horse in and, of course, at night the Greeks sneak out to set fire to the city…

Yep, looks like a Grecian gift to me...
Session 3 Antiquity in modern settings

By 1913 cinema was engaging with antiquity in different ways. This session opened with three documentaries showing visits to ancient sites: “the poor man’s grand tour…” the only way the common man could get to see these sites: An Excursion in Ancient Greece (1913), Through the Ruins of Ancient Rome (1914) and Excursions to the Roman Ruins of Ampurias (1911).

These were fascinating snippets and Stephen Horne’s playing was especially effective in helping us recreate the fascination of seeing the living ancient world for the first time.
Oddly enough the Forum has hardly changed...
Oil and Water (1913) This DW Griffith film carried a typical message but not the straight-ahead Christian morality you’d possibly expect. It stars Blanche Sweet as a dancer who falls in love with an Idealist (Henry B Walthall… later to star in The Birth of a Nation) – can they form a sound family union or will she be lured back to her exiting life on stage?

There’s support from Lionel Barrymore and if you looked really closely you could see both Dorothy and Lillian Gish in the audience for Blanche’s first dance sequence. The dance is very well filmed by Griffith as Sweet plays Venus and wins the Idealist's heart.

Nick Lowe pointed out the film’s "magnificent theological incoherence" - none of which stops DW from making his ultimate point (bit of a habit that).

Almost certainly not priestesses of the goddess Vesta...
L’etoile de Genie (1913) Directed by F. Zecca and R. Leprince, this French film dealt with another relationship in which two people are brought together by a classical figure.

Stacia Napierkowska plays dancer Stacia who inspires a wayward musician, Signoski (Gabriel Signoret) to write a great work based on the life of Gaius Caligula. But Signoski can’t cope with his muse’s success and she moves on as he loses the plot: are they oil and water too?

So… a very full day in the comfortable seats of the British Museum’s BP Lecture Theatre underneath the tourist-packed Great Court. Maria Wyke said to leave feedback and mine would be to please run more days like this – the films and music  were a treat and the Q&As were full of insight and interesting snippets. Did you know, for example, that tinting had to stop when sound came as the process would have interfered with the sound track?

More details of the project can be found in The Ancient World in Silent Cinema edited by Dr Michelakis and Professor Wyke – it’s available from Amazon or Cambridge University Press.


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