Ghosts of silent films

September 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

Not that I am necessarily a great believer in the metaphor of the ghosts of the silent screen, but

a) there is enough evidence to make the links between spiritism and silent cinema (see Valentino’s séances for one) quite intriguing — how much reality was/is there, then, in images of silent films?

b) turning a film studio into an art installation, and film shooting into performance art, is a rather seductive idea that would deserve more work;

and c) i haven’t posted anything on this blog for quite a while :-).

But I had missed this back in 2012: Guy Maddin’s installation of silent studio shoot / spiritism / art installation / chasing after films that have vanished at the Centre Pompidou:

and it seems the film Maddin has managed to piece together from these experiences will open at the London Film Festival next month: The Forbidden Room.

Enough serendipity to drive one mad!

At the movies with baby, ca. 1918

February 26, 2014 § 1 Comment

ImageFrom Film Fun, Jan. 1919, p. 14

Digitial Humanities: 2 recent projects

September 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

Following on the heels of an engrossing conversation about Digital Humanities at the last HoMer group meeting, in parallel to the last NECS conference in Prague last June — not just the fabulous projects already up and running, such as Richard C. Allen’s Going to the Show (University of North Carolina), but also the promises of Big Data in the field of movie reception (from Jeffrey Klenotic‘s mapping of places of amusement, from the 19th century onwards, to illustrate the conflicts and cooperations between movie houses and vaudeville houses, to the great visualisations proposed by Deb Verhoeven from Deakin University and her team in Australia to track recent changes to global exhibition of films)…
[sorry long sentence]
…come two truly exciting developments for film scholars around the world. Digital humanities at their best.
–> Lantern: from the Media History Digital Library, now a search engine to explore their vast and growing collection of film magazines. Free, easily available, a must for film scholars engaged in understanding reception.
–> PictureGoing: the latest brainchild of web-prolific Luke McKernan (of Bioscope fame), this aims to provide curiosity-seekers and reception scholars alike with “an ongoing survey reproducing testimony of watching films, from the 1890s to the present day”, no less ! Sources added, what, every day since the site went live in early september. You’d be a fool not to subscribe, frankly.

Keystone’s 100th

August 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Happy Anniversary, Keystone !

As reported by The Silent Treatment:

This August marks the 100th an- niversary of the founding of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, Amer- ica’s first studio dedicated to the pro- duction of motion picture comedies. Keystone Studios, under the guid- ance of pioneering producer/director Mack Sennett, was the birthplace of the classic American slapstick com- edy. This historic studio was at one time home to early Hollywood lumi- naries such as Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, Mabel Normand, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, The Bathing Beau- ties, Marie Dressler, Ben Turpin, The Keystone Cops, Ford Sterling and countless others. Even Hollywood icon Charlie Chaplin, still the world’s most recognized actor, introduced his beloved Tramp character under the auspices of Keystone.

Yet of the 1000+ films of such good-humoured nonsense, only a mere hundreds survive, often in fragmentary condition, scattered all around the word. But do not despair: Turner Entertainment is working on a DVD/Blue Ray restoration of 100 Keystone to mark the studio’s 100th anniversary. Something (else!) to look forward to for Christmas.

riding vs. interacting: fictional sensory immersion in Brighton

June 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

[UPDATE 21 Jan. 2014. This entry dates back to June 2012 and I have never finished writ ing it. I’m still posting it in the hope you find it slightly thought-provoking. It was a peculiar feeling to be able to understand the pleasures of (early) cinema down on the Pier while watching (late) game simulators — experiential time-travel of sorts.]

On the margins of the orgy of stimulating thoughts that Domitor ’12 has turned out to be, this week, in Brighton, I found some time, after 3 busy days, to amble down the Brighton Pier —  a place, I might add, screaming for some 21st century attention from a 19th century scholar. And a media scholar, it turns out to be, as there were a couple of surprises waiting for me, as it were.


I went in there partly to see the sea — and in Brighton, it turns out, this takes some doing. You could be forgiven, walking down as I did from central Brighton, if you thought the sea the most inconsequential of sights in the area, an afterthought of the land, an ending in grey flatness for so much vertical, multicolored sensory appeal, from the Pavillion to the Pier. A space, indeed, waiting for the activities of Man to be written on, more than a place to go to, sail across, and experience.

The other reason I was going there was an early talk back in Monday by Jon Burrows that had reconstructed the arcade, slot-machine context of very early film exhibition — reminding us that film, as one participant at that panel had put it, had indeed started as “a coin-operated machine”. And it seemed a gross oversight to me to be soon leaving the town without paying a visit to its Amusement center.

The surprises, then. There are two arcade centers on the Pier, housing mostly slot betting machines, and “the most recent” (as advertised) video-games in elaborate steel structures that proclaim the prowess of 19th century steel architecture with a proud oblivion to the din that goes on below — and which it succeeds, still today,


in accommodating (at least for the 1st, larger structure, now called “the Palace of Fun”. The 2d, aka “The Dome”, is further down in the pier and is a more recent addition and feels like it).There weren’t that many people on the (rainy, mid-week, non-holiday) day when I went, and possibly on a hot, crowded summer day it could be very different (and the ominous down-wind drifts of grilled food that one could smell were not reassuring, in that respect). But to me the place felt perfectly designed to the noise, the gaming activity, the crowd movements, with its dome sitting majestically at an ironic distance from the futility of the crowd activities below. Distantiation, architecturally, programmatically built-in, to allow for the enjoyment of one wasting one’s money. (UPDATE: and it doesn’t help, either, that the Palace of Fun, with its fine ironwork interior, is all that’s left of the Winter Garden where, you guessed it, theater and music hall — and probably films too — took place).

Remember the Sensorama — this supposed grand-father of virtual reality, offering a motor-cycle experience of driving through New York Streets. Brighton Pier has the “Typhoon”:


Two “players” sit back in back-reclining seats that move during the ride while the players hang on to bars located on the sides of the seat. In front of them, and large enough to occupy most of their scope of vision, is a screen where computer simulations of rides are shown. The players get to choose which “game” they want to play, but in reality they are not playing any game as much as enjoying a virtual ride — completed by the sensation of movement and wind blowing on their hair as they “move” along.

Dreyer’s Film Festival at the BFI (1) – The President (1919), or Dreyer busting chains

March 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

The BFI has started on a Dreyer cycle that promises to show all of the oeuvre (and then some: the short Dreyer films on the program are also quite enticing) of the Danish filmmaker. A chance to see (for me, for the first time) all of his silent films in crisp, tinted, magnificently restored prints with, for their first item on the program, the wonderfully moody and glistening live accompaniment of Stephen Horne, who handles both the piano and the flute (and at the same time too — and no, the man does not have four hands, though it sounds like he’s working on that).

On The President (1919) — and all things Dreyer in general — the Danish Film Institute has an amazing web resource,, which I’ll be raiding for posters and stills of the films in the hope that you go and visit all they have to offer, which, in their words, include

roughly 35 original articles about Dreyer and his work, along with a number of previously published pieces, available as PDF-files. For convenience, we have organised the articles under six headings:

  • Biography (Dreyer’s life and work, plus an overview of the recipients of the Carl Th. Dreyer Award and an extensive  bibliography)
  • People (people Dreyer surrounded himself with – technicians, actors, et al.)
  • Places (companies and institutions Dreyer worked with throughout his career)
  • Method (personal accounts of Dreyer’s filmmaking, as well as analyses and discussions of his working methods)
  • Themes (discussions and analyses of the content of Dreyer’s films)
  • Visual style (Dreyer as a maker of images – camera work, production design, editing, etc.)

and loads of images, stunning posters, exhibition booklets and programs, manuscript scenarios, notes on the reception of the films, and so on. And, yes, they also have coverage of the 23 pre-1919 films Dreyer had shot before he worked on The President. In other words, ignore this resource at your own peril !

Not for me here to sum up the plot, but a few notes on this interesting little gem of a film. The point for Dreyer seems to have been to test the limit of melodramatic convention. There’s the triple flashback technique, sure — but Dreyer seemed to have felt the awkwardness of this and was dissatisfied with it, an experiment that he copied from the source (Karl Emil Franzos’s novel) but felt was rather “pretentious” and never reiterated later on (letter to Erik Ulrichsen, dated 11 March 1958). There’s the use of non-professional actors for secondary, background presence (the sleeve-scratching policeman is a great find!). But more than this is how those experiments are all worked in to run counter to melodramatic conventions. The film basically tells the same story of rich young man fooling around with lower-class maid, but with three distinct endings, working its way away from conventions and toward a more realistic, modern representation: the first one does “the noble thing” and marries the girl, the second one does not marry her but obeys his own vow to his dying father, and still writes a nice, weepy letter to his loved one — but the third one is just a cad who writes a letter also to break up his relationship, but the letter is to his own mother asking her to throw the poor girl out of the house ! Melodrama catches on in its wild fire way until the second “gentleman” is caught up with his past and asked to be the judge of his own (abandoned, illegitimate) daughter some 30 years later. So far, so melo. But then the mould starts breaking, the hero starts to think, and plans his own daughter’s escape, then exile, then marriage to some colonial trader — and the film at that point goes back to the naturalistic, nature-loving, outside staging that marks Dreyer’s wild belief in the possibility of happiness. And for the first time, the characters, the tragic, melodramatic characters that up to now seem so concerned, so worried by a code of conduct they need to enforce, the main characters, gasp, smile.

During the film, strong melodramatic moments are staged, indeed, but with visual reminders that nature is around, that there is another, less theatrical, but quite charming life — as in the few, awkward shots of the baby walking among the ruins of the family castle where the father, our hero #1, comes to die of shame. This strategy of providing a background (as in non-actors in the background, too) that’s also an alternative horizon to the drama comes full force in that last sequence of the film where the characters are about to break out from the mould. The alternative is about to come to the front. And then the film plunges back to the melo circle for a very satisfying ending that has a lot of punch, in its finality, to it — but not without a very awkward moment where our hero tries to go back, quite unconvincingly, to the grand tragic figure (the scene where he offers himself up to the judge), only to be made a fool of. We’ve seen his human side, his tragic mask now

[gives off] an unmistakably odour of beard and makeup (same letter quoted above)

Not surprisingly, reception at the time seems to have been mixed, with some Danish reviewers expressing shame that this was the state of Danish cinema in 1920, others not knowing quite what to do with the outdated class relations being portrayed here. There’s a form trying to break loose in this film, it does in glimpses, shots of nature, kids playing, cat and dogs eating, outdoor-living folks, and loving couples in canoes that will turn out to be quite influential in cinema’s quest to romanticize/celebrate the world human minds inhabit — Vidor’s dreamy, weeping-willow caressed boat sequence in Bardely’s The Magnificent (1926) comes to mind:

Rose of Rhodesia (1918) – an aside for truth

February 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Bawa Falls, or the "Bawa Falls" ?From the introduction to the Screening the Past Special on that first South African fiction film, and that familiar confusion of values in silent fiction films:

Since all these were documentaries, The Rose of Rhodesia has the distinction of being the first representation of Rhodesia in a fiction film. And yet, as can be seen from a reviewer’s recommendation that “preliminary titles should be added to stress the genuineness of these scenes” (The Bioscope, 6 November 1919, 98-9), the boundary between fiction and documentary was anything but clear-cut at this time. The Kinematograph Weekly’s comment that “‘The Rose of Rhodesia’ has the qualities of an educational and of a ‘scenic’” (6 November 1919, 115) illustrates the paradox that early feature films could also be valued for their factual authenticity. Indeed, in the private collection donated to Nederlands Filmmuseum, The Rose of Rhodesia had been grouped with travel features such as The Bavarian Alps, Windsor Castle, Japan Today, and Sarajevo, The Capital of Bosnia.
Conversely, The Rose of Rhodesia also incorporates formal elements found in earlier, non-fictional films about Rhodesia. The sequence in which Ushakapilla dreams about his ancestors fighting resembles the Ndebele warriors in Savage South Africa: Attack and Repulse (1899), the Warwick Film Company’s dramatic footage of the “Savage South Africa” show staged by Frank Fillis at Earl’s Court in London.[6] The scene aboard a train in which audiences are presented with views of the “Rhodesian” veldt echoes Lauste’s A Trip on the Rhodesian Railway (1908). And The Rose of Rhodesia’s panoramic shots of the Bawa Falls recall several films about the colony’s best-known tourist attraction: The Great Victoria Falls (dir. Emile Lauste, 1907); Victoria Falls and the Zambesi (dir. Cherry Kearton, 1911); Holiday on the Zambesi (dir. Frank Butcher, 1911); and Victoria Falls and the Zambesi Gorge (dir. Walter Tyler, 1911). Perhaps with these cinematic precursors in mind, The Kinematograph Weekly’s reviewer declared confidently that “much of the grand scenery (crags, precipices, and waterfalls) is of a kind which could only be taken in Rhodesia” (6 November 1919, 115).

Not convinced that this confusion concerns only “early fiction films” — indeed I would contend that this “confusion” is part of what still makes cinema attractive if one starts analyzing it through the prism of the “suspension of disbelief” rather than through the prism of “truth”. Such reality-seeking gazes directed onto fiction films are part of audiences’ basic viewing strategies: a thrill enhancement that consists in colliding the educational and the make-belief.

Yes, a book on that, someday.

Meanwhile, all about the history of cinema in South Africa.

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