Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Another year over... 12 from ‘16


And lo, it did come to pass that the year of fear was nearly done and it was time to reflect on those silvery screen moments that made me forget all dreary and celebrate joyous connection with cinematic genius past and musical improvisation present. Here then, particularly in no particular order, are some of my best bits of the year.

1.    Terje Vigen (1917) John Sweeney and Lillian Henley, Kennington Bioscope

Back in May I was blown away by Victor Sjöström’s images and Henrik Ibsen’s words brought vividly to life by John Sweeney’s immaculate playing and Lillian Henley’s impeccable articulation of the English translation. I’ve seen Terje Vigen before and listened to title card translations but Ms Henley surpassed all the rest with a pitch perfect reading that brought a bitter-sweet intensity to Ibsen’s tragic tale. There and then I thought this couldn’t fail to be one of the very best screenings of the year and so it was.

The Bioscope has had a vintage year with the 2nd annual Silent Film Weekend and Silent Comedy Weekender providing twin pillars around which the metropolitan silent activist can build their schedule of "must see" delights.

2.    Porter Loos… Slapstick Festival

Way out West in January I experienced my first Slapstick Festival and especially enjoyed Lucy Porter’s session on the writer Anita Loos… from one witty woman to another this was an absorbing dive into the unrivalled scat of silent film’s leading lady of letters. From Mary Pickford’s tears over her ruined New York Hat to Doug Fairbank’s stoned pursuit of mysterious leaping fish; Loos caught the moment with equal verve. Mr Sweeney was again on hands along with the marvellous harpist, Elizabeth-Jane Baldry.

The Friday night gala featuring Charlie’s sublime The Kid and Buster’s brilliant Cops were also superb but it’s the Porter passion that stays in the mind: we’re all a bit like that… cinemutophilia is driven by such intense interest.

3.    British Silent Film Festival Symposium, Kings College, London

Back to college at Kings for two illuminating days of screenings and papers at the BSFFS – a chance to see rare films such as The Somme (1927) and Fred O’Donovan’s Knockagow (1918) “made by Irish Men and Women”. Top film was the very coy Married Love (1923) starring the beautiful and amazing Lilian Hall-Davis passing on Marie Stopes highly-coded lessons of practical parenting.

Top academics and researchers combined with all the best accompaniments and excellent company to provide a truly enriching two days.

Lilian Hall-Davis

4.    The Globe and BFI trading places

Theatre and live cinema swapped “codes” and venues in a contest that proved how brilliant both were. The Globe Musicians accompanied the BFI’s Play On! compilation of silent Shakespeare at ye olde NFT whilst a few months later Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) was screened in the Globe accompanied by Uttley and Gregory’s score and the Monteverdi Choir ably marshalled by Charles Hazelwood.

All the world's a screen etc...

5.    Destiny (1921), Cambridge Film Festival with Stephen Horne

The Cambridge Film Festival had an excellent focus on silent film and this early Fritz Lang creepy was screened in the lecture hall at Emmanuel College with Stephen Horne providing uncanny accompaniment as Love plays games with Death.

6.    Prix de Beaute (1929), Stephen Horne, Kennington Bioscope

Not for the first time, Louise Brooks had me weak at the keyboard, desperately struggling to find the words to impress her. This was a performance that showed the marked superiority of silent film over early sound as Brooks’ eternal fascinations and Stephen Horne’s dashing lines, elevated this film to its proper position – not Pandora by any means but something less knowing and all the more tragic for it.  

Every little breeze, seems to whisper... Louise.

7.    The Ghost That Never Returns (1930)/Hell’s Hinges (1916), The Dodge Brothers, Barbican

This was a riot of rhythm as Mike, Mark, Aly and Alex were accompanied by Neil Brand in providing musical momentum for two wildly different films: one wild and western, the other ethereal and eastern. Both had trains, dust and a narrative drive set straight for the hard way: mad cowboys played incompetent pool as revolutionary tension rises for the condemned man on his last day of freedom whilst William S Hart discovers God in a woman’s heart and lights a fire to burn his town free of sin.

All this and Mr Kermode’s steady hands coaxing tuneful atmospherics from Mr Theramin’s potentially treacherous electro-magnetic fields...

8.    The Informer (1929), London Film Festival, BFI

The London Film Festival offered quality over quantity for this year’s silent choices and The Informer didn’t disappoint. Freshly-restored and accompanied by a roaring new score from Garth Knox and a crack six-piece ensemble it was a hard-hitting tale of love and betrayal that somehow retained its force in spite of having to tiptoe around English sensibilities. A digital release is being prepared for next season.

9.    Von morgens bis mitternachts (1920), Stephen Horne & Martin Pyne, Barbican

This film formed part of a short series of authentic Weimar expressionism which, it turns out, was far less a movement than a trilogy. Only this film, Caligari and the closing segment of Waxworks, can truly be considered purely expressionistic… even though elements of technique are commonly overlapping – atmospherics intended to show interior states but almost all using more conventional narrative structure and design. Well, according to Lotte Eisner and those who know, you know.

A striking and stylish film with quirky, surrealist syncopations from Messrs Horne and Pyne.

10.    Women of the Year - Silent Women: Pioneers of Cinema, Kennington Bioscope

Given that women wrote around half of silent films their subsequent retreat in the industry is a sad indictment of cinema’s subsequent white male corporate dominance. A new book Silent Women: Pioneers of Cinema was launched at the Bioscope and aimed at restoring the reputations of those who not only filled the skills gaps in early cinema but more than played their part in the most crucial period of development in cinema history.

Lois Weber’s Shoes was screened with Lillian Henley providing music as eloquent as her spoken word for Terje Vigen. After this I sought out more Lois and began an appreciation of the mighty Nell Shipman!

11.    The Somme (1916), Laura Rossi, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall

The most poignant sights and sounds were conjured at this screening on the anniversary of the Battle’s end although whether it ever ended for the thousands involved I doubt. Laura Rossi’s score, partly in tribute to her Uncle Fred who fought in and survived the Somme, was magnificently in sympathy with the mixed emotions on view. Ordinary fathers, sons and brothers momentarily pushing aside mortal dread with brave smiles for the folk back home.

The argument goes in some quarters that there is some sort of statute of limitations on remembrance but, with these images of fragile existence still on screen, how can we ever not watch without feeling? In the past wars disappeared with memory and painting, now we have an eternity of archived actuality… these men live on.

The Lancashire Fusiliers take a break

12.    Man Men of the year…

There can only be one or is that three: the fictionalised General, his writer-director and the man who has worked for so long to resurrect his work. Yes, forget Time’s choice of a two-bit huckster as its MOTY, my choice belongs to Napoleon, Abel Gance and Kevin Brownlow: three giants of a permanent cinematic revolution that rages on to this day thanks to the BFI’s stunning restoration.

But there’s a fourth… Carl Davis whose stunning score impressed once again at the live performance at the Royal Festival Hall, he conducting tirelessly and the London Philharmonia playing this amazing, stirring music with his own compositions standing shoulder to shoulder with Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart.

If you haven’t got the BluRay/DVD set, there’s still time to ask Santa or treat yourself via the BFI Shop.

See you in 2017! Maybe even in Pordenone…

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