Wednesday, 20 December 2017

The Twelve Days of Silent Night: the year in pantomime. Or, well done 2017!

This just gets harder; how can any sane person possibly reduce such a splendid silent year into a top twelve?! This year I've seen more live cinema than ever before along with a travelling band of fascinated and fascinating individuals who are on a mission to understand more of the immense silvery spaces that make up the lost worlds of cinema without sounds but with music and soul.

1. The Freshman (1925), Guenter A Buchwald, Bristol Ensemble, Slapstick Festival Gala, Colston Hall, Bristol
It's now an annual family tradition with my daughter at Bristol University and the Gala never disappoints especially with so many locals turning out in a packed Colston Hall.

All this and Roy Hudd channelling Max Miller! Now, there was a funny thing!

Catherine Hessling  - La Fille de l’eau (1925)
2. La Fille de l’eau (1925) with John Sweeney, Institut Français
Jean Renoir's first feature film was being shown as part of the annual All About Piano! festival of the keyboard at the Institut français and was part of its ciné-concert stream. It's always good to experience different venues and the Institute provided a superb context for both the film and John Sweeney with a finely-tuned grand piano enabling him to fully tap into his boundless reservoir of musical themes.

What better way of celebrating the versatility of le piano than hearing him accompany for this ciné-concert?

3. Revolutionary Centenary: The New Babylon (1929), Sasha Grynyuk, LSO St Luke’s
This was a reconstruction of an original score by a precocious young man name of Dmitri Shostakovich. Sasha Grynyuk played the complex work to perfection and this one stood out in a year of celebrations… From an historical point of view the centenary is an important one and it was depressing to see so many post-factual judgements based on all that was to come. The film was propagandist, but we know all about such things in 2017.

Les Misérables
4. Play for a day… Les Misérables (1925-6), Neil Brand, The Barbican
One huge film serial, one fair-sized piano and a man with a seemingly endless musical imagination kept us entertained for over five hours at the Barbican. By co-incidence the London Marathon was on the same day buy, carrying the film and his audience with him all the way, Neil Brand emerged the real winner.

The Abbeydale Picture House in Sheffield, South Yorshire

5. Yorkshire Silent Film Festival, The Lodger (1927), Neil Brand, Covent Garden Sinfonia, Ben Palmer, Abbeydale Picture House
Part of the joy of silent cinema is introducing new people to the experience. My sister lives in Sheffield and neither she nor her husband had ever seen a silent film on screen, so it gave me great pleasure to see their reaction to Buster Keaton’s Cameraman, The Girl with the Hatbox and The Lodger featuring the Covent Garden Symphonia playing Neil Brand’s super new score.

The Abbeydale is a great venue, a stunning relic of mass entertainment past and I hope it and the Yorkshire Silent Film festival go from strength to strength. I’ll be back next year.

6. New silent films! This was the year of Alex Barratt’s mesmerising ode to his home town with The London Symphony (2017) which I saw with Ben Palmer conducting the Covent Garden Sinfonia playing James McWilliam's score at the Barbican.

We also the simply remarkable Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016), in which Bill Morrison unearthed not only the story of hundreds of lost silent films but also of the perma-frosted town in which they were held in ice for 90 years.  The film creates a compelling narrative by weaving past, present, fact and fiction together with mind-boggling cohesion.

Maurice Elevy's master-stroke!

7. British Silent Film Festival Another smashing long weekend in Leicester during which Balfour mania reached new heights as Betty charmed us in film after film including Cocktails (1928) and A Sister of Six (1927). I also particularly enjoyed Maurice Elvey’s Balaclava (1928) with his extraordinary re-enactment of the battle as soulful as it was accurate especially when accompanied by John Sweeney’s thunderous accompaniment. Kevin Brownlow described it as the most impressive large-scale action scene in British silent cinema and it’s hard to think of many sound films that come close.

My official James Murray Pordenone mug...

8. Pordenone Bellissimo! The Crowd (1928), Carl Davis, Pordenone Orchestra
This was my personal highlight as an event: my first trip to La Giornate del Cinema Muto and eight days of films long and short from breakfast to well past supper time, thank goodness the bars don’t close early in Italy. To be honest, it felt like the step up from Premier League to Champions League and I struggled to get out of the qualifying stages only to rally against the sheer class of the proposition. It’s a silent marathon and not a sprint and I can’t wait for next year.

Picking favourites is impossible but the opening round featuring Eleanor Boardman and James Murray in King Vidor’s The Crowd is the most memorable… A supernaturally-charged Carl Davis conducted the Pordenone Orchestra playing his own spectacular score for one of my favourite silent films and even up in the Gods at the Teatro Verdi my socks were detached and flying high over Friuli-Venezia Giulia skies.

Jenny Hasselqvist 

9. Jenny on the block… Vem Dömer? (1922) with Neil Brand and Frank Bockius, Pordenone
 There was a very strong Scandinavian strand at Pordenone of which Victor Sjostrom’s lover’s ordeal stood out as it had to, being a rare screening featuring Jenny Hasselqvist who is, for me, one of the greatest silent actors; a master of physical and emotional control who never overplays even in the most extreme circumstances. And she certainly had those at the end of this powerful film.

9. It was Louise Brooks’ year (again). In Italy I saw the recently rediscovered Now We're in the Air (1927) featuring Brooksie shining brightly despite a gurning Wallace Beery and a storyline flying like a bird… I also saw Pandora’s Box (1929) with Stephen Horne accompanying at the beginning and end of the year, the second introduced by Pamela Hutchinson, whose excellent book on the film made the re-watch essential and even more enjoyable.


10. Hurray for Bollywood! Shiraz (1928), with Anoushka Shankar, Barbican, London Film Festival Archive Gala. This one went through the roof and was by some distance my most read post of the year and not surprisingly given the sense of occasion and the way that Anoushka Shankar got to the heart of the film with her intelligent and fluent score. This was one of the most uplifting screenings of the year, a real celebration.

11. Uncanny Tales… Häxan (1922), with Reece Shearsmith and Stephen Horne, Phoenix.
This was a Halloween treat organised by the East Finchley Contingent and which featured a local gentleman giving eloquent voice to Benjamin Christensen’s dramatized documentary on the history of witchcraft. Stephen Horne accompanied with uncanny virtuosity and the shock ending revealed mankind to be the real demonic power.

Häxan (1922)
12. The Cinema Museum/Kennington Bioscope
This list isn’t in any order, but I have saved the most important until last. This year was another vintage one for the Kennington Bioscope and their partners at the Cinema Museum. In addition to the regular screenings every three weeks we have also enjoyed the 3rd Silent Film Weekend and the 2nd Silent Laughter Saturday – dozens of fantastic films accompanied by excellent musicians: John Sweeney, Meg Morley, Cyrus Gabrysch, Lillian Henley, Stephen Horne and others.

Highlights have included the naughtiest Gish, Dorothy, in Nell Gwyn (1926) with Meg Morley, one of the great Italian Diva’s Pina Menichelli in Il Fuoco (1916), with John Sweeney playing and honeyed spoken translation from Lillian Henley (they are the Bioscope’s Dream Team) and The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926) one of the best-looking films of the year, with Cyrus Gabrysch’s piano filling the huge spaces with Death Valley cool as humanity fights for life and love against overwhelming heat and the onrushing Colorado River. Then two weeks ago we had Anna May Wong in Pavement Butterfly accompanied by Stephen Horne and Elsa Lanchester in the British silent treat, Blue Bottles with Meg Morley: great programming and so much talent.

Pina Menichelli in Il Fuoco 
But the Museum itself is also a pure joy, filled with memorabilia and artefacts that connect us to the cultural past. The people who run the museum and make the Bioscope possible are also the real spirit of the enterprise and to all the players, programmers such as Amran Vance and Michelle Facey and the volunteers, I thank you and hope that the Museum continues in its current venue – where once Charlie Chaplin’s family lived.

If there’s one present we all really want from Santa, this is it.

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