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!

Yesterday the Future, or, The Great Conference Mash-Up

June 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s october 14, 2012 in Northern Italy, and you’re waking up (late, after a week of being up early to catch the 1st film show at 9 in the morning), wondering how you’re going to fill your day with excitement now that Pordenone ’12 has just finished. Look no further: pack your bags and move down to Turin, where the 13th International View Conference is about to start (oct. 16-19), on “the creative power of technology” — and what a panel of guests await ! From Skywalker Prod. sound designer Gary Rydstrom, to Madagascar‘s Eric Darnell or Halo‘s Josh Holmes, this promises to be quite an event where high-tech meets Hollywood storytelling in the flesh, so to speak.

A very tempting line-up indeed, if, like me, you’re navigating back and forth from New Media today to back in time when film was new media. Try the combo ! 🙂

Image <——- ?? ——->Image

AMIA: The Reel Thing XXII – restoration splendors

August 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

The Reel Thing XXII is one heckuva conference. Where else can you talk Moon landing and Snow White, how to recover petabytes and how to marry a millionaire ? Need I say more ?
It’s in Los Angeles and it’s August 21-22.

Music, Robin Hood ! An International Conference

May 4, 2009 § Leave a comment

Wish I could be there (check out the musical program ! Check out the exhibitions !)

Robin Hood: Media Creature An International Conference, 22-25 October 2009

The International Association for Robin Hood Studies will sponsor the Seventh Biennial Conference on Robin Hood, to be held 22-25 October 2009 at the University of Rochester, Rochester NY (USA). Scholars from North America, Europe, and Asia will present papers on well-established and perennially controversial aspects of the outlaw hero, and will offer new views and understandings as well. Participants will be drawn from scholars and intellectuals in all fields of academic, artistic, and popular culture, with no limits on time period, media, or national literatures. Though film, media, and the popular and performing arts will have a featured role, sessions will include a broad range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary interests, including medieval and early modern historical studies, literary criticism, folklore, musicology and music practice, children’s literature, cultural studies, anthropology, film and media studies, performance art and oral recitations, art history, literary theory, and philosophy. Deadline for abstracts is 15 June 2009.

Ms. Gillian Anderson (Bologna), internationally renowned composer, conductor, and musicologist, has participated in the reconstruction and performance of some thirty-four orchestral scores from silent films, author of four books, founding editor of the new journal, Music and the Moving Image (University of Illinois Press). Website:

Plenary events: Twenty-First Century “World Premiere” of Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (United Artists, 1922). A new 35mm tinted print, restored by the Museum of Modern Art and George Eastman House / International Museum of Film and Photography, will be screened 24 October 2009 (Saturday) before an audience of 500 at the Dryden Theatre, George Eastman House. Live Accompaniment for Robin Hood. Gillian Anderson will conduct a live orchestra playing the newly reconstructed score of Robin Hood. The showing – which will duplicate the experience of audiences who attended the first-ever Hollywood premier, and of those in early twentieth-century movie palaces – will be introduced by Patrick Loughney, Head, National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, Library of Congress (Packard Campus).

East Coast Premier of Robin Hood (Éclair America, 1912), the earliest surviving film featuring the outlaw hero, in a recently restored print (shown so far only once, in LA) from the Fort Lee Film Commission. With solo musical accompaniment by Philip Carli, distinguished film expert and musicologist who has accompanied silent films at the Pordenone Festival in Italy, and elsewhere in Europe and North America.

Concert of Early Lute Music. Grammy-Award winner Paul O’Dette (Eastman School of Music) will offer a recital of Elizabethan Greenwood and Robin Hood-related lute music, drawing upon the repertoire he established in albums including Robin is to the Greenwood Gone (1992) and Robin Hood: Elizabethan Ballad Settings (2001).

Operetta in Performance. Steven Daigle (Chair, Strings, Eastman School of Music, and Artistic Director, Ohio Light Opera) has organized an evening of arias and songs from Robin Hood musicals, spanning the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. This presentation will occur the evening of 22 October 2009 (Thursday) , and will feature musicians and singers from the Ohio Light Opera, as well as faculty and students from the Eastman School of Music and the University of Rochester.

Events and Exhibitions: “An Impression of the Middle Ages”: Productions Stills from Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood. A major exhibition drawing upon an archive of nearly 1000 negatives at the George Eastman House, most never exhibited or examined before. The exhibition will also include original posters and lobby cards, and the boots which Fairbanks wore in the film. Support and contributions from the George Eastman House Motion Picture Department, and the University of Rochester Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.The Americanization of Robin Hood, 1883-1923. A focused exhibition, tracing the development of American images of Robin Hood which have permanently changed the outlaw’s status in international popular culture. Incorporating the Fairbanks photographs from “An Impression of the Middle Ages,” it will provide a lavishly documented account of the impact and history of Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, and present music, lyrics, advertisements, programs, and photographs associated with the operettas of Reginald De Koven, including Robin Hood (1891) and Maid Marian (1901). Support and contributions from the George Eastman House, the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, the Sibley Music Library, and a private collection. Robin Hood: Media Creature: An exhibition of Robin Hood-related materials, ranging from the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries, in all media – selected from thousands of items in paper media (printed books, sheets, ephemera, cartoons, comic books, boys’ serials, garlands, prose lives, “histories,” posters from well known and obscure films and TV), film and TV recordings (DVDs, VCR tapes, various film formats of commercial, public, and cable productions), musical recordings (popular song, operettas, rock and roll, rap, soundtracks, spoken word, and more), photographs (including a selection from previously un-exhibited “keybooks” for The Adventures of Robin Hood [1938] with Errol Flynn), along with other artifacts such as games, puzzles, viewmaster reels, teapots and plates, and more. Support and contributions from the Strong National Museum of Play, the George Eastman House, the Rossell Hope Robbins Library, Rush Rhees Library, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, and a private collection.

For further information on Conference Registration and full call for papers, go to Send paper abstracts (limit 300 words) in MS Word or compatible formats to Thomas Hahn, The deadline for submissions is 15 June 2009.

Pordenone diary – day seven

October 23, 2008 § 1 Comment

More music in silent film stuff.

Count me in as one of those that wasn’t overtly impressed by Michael Nyman’s playing for either Jean Vigo’s A propos de Nice or Dziga Vertov’s Kino Pravda. A propos de Nice, a naughty, irreverent and poetic piece, I had seen last year already, with, per force, a different accompaniment. I can’t say the four or five musical themes that Nyman brought to the film and kept on repeating time after time after time did much for me. On some dreamy plane they did fit the film, but I suspect it’s because of the inherent nostalgic feeling most black and white silent films create in viewers. The repetition of lush musical themes will nicely contribute to the same feeling. But there was something utterly mechanistic about Nyman’s accompaniment, where one musical theme was tightly identified with one theme in the film (music for workers; music for people strolling; etc.). And to read, the next day, in the local newspaper, an interview where the maestro explained how what he wanted to do, with his music, was to surprise the listener…that’s too much for me to bear.

But then, I don’t have much feeling for celebrities. I like the old Hollywood adage: 

you’re as good as your last film.

which Stroheim used as a sign of Hollywood’s utter philistinism (Stroheim enjoyed being lionized for his past achievements in Europe). I only wish it would apply to more professions…

Now day 7 for me: nothing about Shiryaev here. Couldn’t get past the social context, of a rich Russian enjoying life filming himself and his family in little summer playlets while Cossacks and poverty went raging through the land, and therefore I still fail to see the significance of all this

(but, as Urbanora said, “we’ll all be wiser” by the end of the festival…)

So I went to see the 1916 British newsreel/documentary film The Battle of the Somme. There was an introduction to this by the restoration team from the Victoria and Albert War Museum, with the keynote address being, for me, from pianist (and composer) Stephen Horne (the only pianist playing at Pordenone to have a groupies’ website on Facebook ?). How to restore the original score for the film ? 

Indeed the film had premiered with the 1916 score at Pordenone in 2006, and the restoration DVD will feature both that score and a new score by Laura Rossi (her goal: to find music that fits the mood of the soldiers shown on film). But the film, while very moving, was also essentially a propaganda piece at the time, and the music was supposed to reflect the upbeat, optimistic mind frame that military authorities were trying to project on what was a very bloody battle. To me the interesting point was how to gauge audience reaction by the music: did musicians in 1916 all play the upbeat music provided by the British Bioscope ? New Yorkers seem to have reacted to the devastation portrayed in the film with horror…would they have accepted a gay march to accompany the film ? Definitely more research in the reception of this film (or more reading!) is required.

Next: our last Pordenone day: Fields, Marion Davies, and Griffith, ever the visionary, starts the last film he ever made with a strong Obama endorsement.

Pordenone diary – day six

October 21, 2008 § 1 Comment

A few strange things happened at Pordenone this year in the programming: films about the first World War from Italy and Austria, shown at the same time in two different venues, Bardelys the Magnificent shown early morning, Laïla, just as magnificent, a 2 hours epic shown at 4 p.m. siesta time, and a Digibeta “documentary”, hardly better than your average DVD extra, shown in prime time at 8 pm with much fanfare. All in all, a strange day. 

Check out The Bioscope before you read this here post, because I too loved Bardelys, tongue-in-cheek, ironical, Bardelys, with Gilbert’s nose longer than you’ve ever seen it, and fight scenes where wit is more important than brute physicality (the soldiers’ lances turned into sliding ramps for Gilbert, the parachute…), as a visibly happy Serge Bromberg said in introduction to the film

Bardelys is magnificent again

Laïla, the 1929 Norwegian surprise, was also very, very good, as only silent films can be.

And Lady of the Pavements…Here my notes are a bit more organized, maybe reflecting how engrossed I must have been during the screening itself (Sosin ! Seaton !):

  • the last scene: she sings the Song of Songs (“where is the song of songs for me?”), thinks about Karl: one by one the customers in the low-life cabaret where she works are changed, in lap-dissolves, into Karl. All the men that is ! And as she sings, and as she sees only Karls everywhere, the real Karl appears – is he the real one, or a reflection of Joanna Seaton, the vocalist, as she sang the song ? Hard to tell.

(This is Lupe Vélez – not Joanna Seaton – but you’ll get the point)

  • The social issue is from another time, another planet. The melodramatic plot (will aristocratic Karl agree to marry a poor, lower class girl ?) is so ancient it is largely irrelevant.
  • The girl’s training to become a lady (how to talk, walk, eat, and dress), on the other hand, is used in the film as an occasion to unmask melodramatic stereotypes, as she is taught to conform to the image of a lady, but falls back, when training’s over, into her natural, easy-going self. Thus do silent films wink at their audience. She has that coarse gesture to put her dress back in place, she takes her shoes off because they are too tight, she scratches her back against the door post when her back’s itchy (!), she head-buts, Pickford-like, her seducing etiquette teacher. One second she’s a lady, the next she’s a pest. And for all we know, it all looks like we’re witnessing the very making of the scene and the camera’s just stopped.
  • But that’s all part of the Griffith head-fake: after her introduction to Karl, the melodramatic takes over and all symptoms of her former self and its pains at acting out the lady, all vanish entirely. She neither hits nor tickles, not anymore – she becomes, for all plot intents and purposes, the operetta character she was playing before.

In other words: another sign that Griffith is indeed irresolute (see my take on Drums of Love)

Next up: war on films (or was this tourism?), and more enchantment.

Pordenone diary – day five

October 21, 2008 § 1 Comment

Slowly catching up…

The affaire du jours, as The Bioscope notes, was the showing of The Watermelon Patch, a 1905 Edison film with so much blatant racism as to make you want to throw your chair at the screen. It’s not often that a film asks you to share a laugh by showing Blacks locked in their home by Whites who proceed to set fire to it. Amazing, yes, that the catalog described this as a purely formal exercise in alternate cutting – though I’d respectfully disagree with Urbanora that the film ought not to have been shown. I’m certainly all the wiser (read, the more disgusted) for having seen it — and I’d love to see a program entirely devoted to racial relations in early cinema, as one comment at the Bioscope suggests.

from Blotto Online Internationalfrom Blotto Online International

The grand affair of the day, to me, was the evening concert. Jean Darling, Donald Sosin, Joanna Seaton – and you think I’m not there ! Jean Darling…I had discovered her last year at Pordenone, both on screen in some Our Gang short comedies (she started when she was 4 years old) and in person on stage at the festival (she was then…), and if you’ve never seen a real, old-time Hollywood pro – and not a fancy-smart-pants modern-day celebrity – you’ve got to see Jean Darling today. She’s beyond good. Give the woman a mike, a chair, and a stage, and she’ll ham it up as best she can – and she’s good at that, too. I didn’t say I’d like her for my grand-mother, but on stage ? Any time, any day. She lives 200% more on a stage.

So she came back this year, and sang an evening of early 1910 (and a few 1920) popular songs that dealt with “the movies”, alternating with Joanna Seaton at the mike, and even Sosin took a turn singing ! With such gems as a naughty “Take your girlie to the movies / if you can’t make love at home”

you can do a lot in seven reels

or the ethnic “When Sarah Saw Theda Bara”, and 15 other songs, and the good humor that went on on the stage between the three performers, it was quite an evening. And the songs were a brilliant, and to me moving, reminder of cinema’s popular attraction: sex, escapism, youth, a sense of freedom, a dose of enchantment, and a large helping of self-aware silliness, you could sense the revolution of the dark room on the march in those songs. Why do we still like cinema today, if not because we like stories, we like colors, we like music, we like taking our s.o. out, we like holding hands, etc. etc. etc. just like they did, one hundred years ago.

And Jean Darling, bosom-twisting:

The things you can get away with when you’re old !

“When you’re old”, yes, Jean, but mostly when you’re good ! Here’s hoping we see you next year, too. 

Pordenone diary – day four

October 21, 2008 § 2 Comments

A word on D.W. Griffith’s Drums of Love (1928), which was shown in a 16 mm print, and which I take as a case in point about the problematic acceptance of melodramatic forms by the late 1920s. I’m more and more convinced that the problem with late Griffith films is less that they’re outdated, but rather that they’re irresolute. Griffith by the late 1920s is going in two directions:

  • one is his old stock-and-trade melodramatic store of hyperbolic titles

(we’re here treated to a description of Lionel Barrymore as a “super-dwarf”–I kid you not)

and punctuation of scenes by frontal long shots that have long been superseded in American cinema, by that time, with more dynamic editing and more kinetic shots (look for interrupted tracking shots in this film, as in other late Griffith films, as a clear sign that D.W. doesn’t quite know what to do with the new idiom: the camera starts moving forward, but stops in mid-flight without accomplishing, without revealing anything).

  • the other direction is decidedly more modern, and ought to put to rest any notion that Griffith is just out of touch. 

Go back to the love scenes here, slow though they may be. Griffith (and indeed, photographer Karl Struss) is here pairing down the number of signifying elements in the staging (a candle, shadows, one look), or the number of emotions shown (there seems to be a consensus that Don Alvarado, as Count Leonardo, is just not acting at all), in a strategy that seems so anticlimatic (where’s the passion) as to be worth a reconsideration, it seems to me. What if purposefully Griffith is slowing the lovers down so the sexual tension builds up ? I’lll admit this sounds rather goofy if you read Scott Simmon’s assessment of the film in the festival catalog

The Drums of Love comes close to being a fascinating film – if we weren’t forced to spend so much time with the two lovers

or if you read what “Penrod” has got to say about it over at The Bioscope. But to me the repetition of love scenes (we got it the first time around, why repeat if not to further the pleasure of dealing with unexpressed passion), the leg-massage that Mary Philbin gets just before her big midnight rendez-vous, the business on the sofa, as languid as they come, are signs that there’s a something that Griffith is trying to tell us, and that something is a bit more modern that the ol’ melodrama: desire !

My partiality to these love scenes, slow, long shots, repetitive, toned down, may be due to the accompaniment that was provided, that day, by none other than the irrepressible Gabriel Thibaudeau — and I was sitting right next to the piano, too ! In those scenes, instead of playing the action (slow, drawn out), Thibaudeau, as he so often does, played the sentiment (wide, passionate, exuberant). The dissonance was very moving, the music taking you to heights of passion that the film refused to go into, providing the dark, unuttered subtext of their love. But at moments like this the distinction between the film and the music is largely irrelevant: the “accompaniment” is the film. 

In this sense the double ending is a symptom that the two trends cannot be reconciled. None of the endings is satsifactory: one just piles on corpses in an orgy of sacrifice that is utterly disgusting, and that even Struss’s mysty photography cannot do anything for; the other mechanically gets rid of the only hindrance in the way of romantic love for the young couple by having Barrymore and the court jester kill off each other. There was a “Bancroft” direction that this could have taken (I’m thinking of Bancroft in Thunderbolt: Thunderbolt, the great big bad gangster, accepts his own sacrifice and execution on the chair to make room for the lovers), when in the second ending Barrymore throws all literary conventions (honor, revenge, etc.) off the window by a simple

who knows ?

But the jester remains a creature of the melodramatic world, where revenge once sworn must take place, and attacks him there and then. So no self-sacrifice here à la Bancroft, but rather a hodge-podge of inconclusive lines. What to choose ? The modernity of desire, the religious sacrifice line, the conventional young romantic couple, a more elaborate Beauty and the Beast moment ? Human, or conventional ? Seems like Griffith just couldn’t decide.

And now a question on Douglas Fairbanks’ Modern Musketeer: has anyone studied out there how Fairbanks sells Fairbanks in his films, how the films are large advertisements for the ”Fairbanks lifestyle” ? Note here the characters who are spectators, too, of the bouncing Doug. And another hint at why Fairbanks was so popular: he turns gold into mud, and lives to smile about it

Golly, what a gully !

(that’s his take on the Grand Canyon – but check out his interactions with the Indian (“How” – “Scrambled!”), or….anything he touches turns to, well, just a joke.)

The next day, day five !, is when Jean Darling, again, descends upon us in her show-biz glory.

Pordenone diary – day three

October 17, 2008 § Leave a comment

A hurried post today. I saw the same program as The Bioscope did, but stayed on for Paris en Cinq Jours (1925), a harmless enough little comedy about American tourists in Paris which features, notably, a hurried 15-minute rush by the tourists through Le Louvre (a gag Godard, in Bande à part, was to renew, though Jacques Feyder had also used it in his Hollywood-made 1929 The Kiss). Isn’t it bad business to go about showing your main customers as boobs ? In the magnificent festival catalog, Lenny Borger comes down hard on the film, and on star-director Nicolas Rimsky:

The film’s central weakness is Rismky himself — his bumbling and grimacing are mostly uninspired mimicry of American models. Still, Rimsky enjoyed popularity among French cinema aurdiences of the 1920s.

I dunno…I thought the film breezed right along (not like that plodding Triplepatte which Lenny Borger seems to have liked…thought for another day!), and I actually enjoyed the pastiche element in that film: it took me a little while to figure out that this was indeed a French film (once the tourists hit Paris then it’s impossible to doubt anymore: hand-held, jerky, out-of-focus shots, long pans on crowds and streets, nervous editing of out-of-balance shots, those would seem to have been de rigueur in all French films seen during this week). But the American segment is, aesthetically, a good copy of an American film c. 1919:  the sets are, notably, American. Dark, velvety, textured, with camera in frontal position, the ubiquitous large desk in front. Is there a good study out there of French pastiches of American silent films ?

But now my main Pordenone complaint. I too went to the Collegium. While I imagine this opportunity given to students to hobnob with the best in international scholarly erudition can only be fantastic (witness for one instance the link Phil Carli just dropped during that session: the University of California Santa Barbara has digitized, in its Sound Collection, 1890-1900 cylinders of theatre or early film music), and while I think it’s a great idea to open said sessions to the public, I wish the sessions were, well, really open. Not to make a mountain out of a molehill, but it sounds jarring to hand out a bibliography “only to Collegians”. This is 2008, information should not, cannot, be proprietary.

Got to be a pretty cool festival if that’s the only bummer of the week. And it is. Check out day four ! I have tons of notes on day four in my little notebook — hopefully there’ll be time this weekend to upload it all here.

Pordenone diary – day two

October 15, 2008 § Leave a comment

There’s a small conversation going on over at The Bioscope on how good, or how bad, Sally of the Sawdust was. Let me add one detail that’s a problem for the film: the now infamous Griffith titles.

a rich young man – a homeless waif – the eternal land of youth

is indeed bad enough, but

if the grandmother only knew that the judge was torturing their baby’s baby

is beyond caricature. And I’m afraid silent films have suffered from the perception that they engage in such schmaltzy over-the-top overt narration all the time, when they’re actually rather rarely this maudling. Here’s what the ever perceptive Robert Sherwood thought of the titles, back in August 1925:

There is [in the film] a fine collection of ham sub-titles, all bearing Mr. Griffith’s trade-mark, in several of which he comes out boldly for Mother Love.

Snap !

Those titles rather should be considered tell-tale signs that something’s going wrong with the narration: and indeed, there’s plenty of evidence here that Fields and Griffith don’t go together as Hazel and Bay Rum do in another Fields film screened later during the week. Take the lack of pay-off to important set ups, such as the court-room scene, or the Ford chase, or Dempster’s drop-dead gorgeous nightgown: it doesn’t mesh either with the rhythm of the film. It points to a later Griffith (the still to come Battle of the Sexes), and to an older (Isn’t Life Wonderful? or Broken Blossoms) Griffith. The incoherence was clear to Sherwood:

“Sally of the Sawdust” is inexcusable. It is absolutely incoherent as to story; its attempts at pathos are illegitimate; its characters-with one exception-are artificial. it is the work of a man who has become so completely soaked with theatrical trumpery that he wouldn’t recognize reality if it stepped up and slapped his face.

The one exception in “Sally of the Sawdust” is provided by W.C. Fields, who manages to inject some of his own matchless comedy, and some of his own human warmth, into this otherwise bloodless story.

I think this contemporary opinion sums up nicely the drift of the conversation going on over at the Bioscope. I’d add only this: Dempster, whose body language oscillates between “a very unconvincing counterfeit of Lillian Gish” (zinger! Sherwood!) and a sexed-out pre-Garbo (just as unconvincing, although more surprising), is the incarnation of this hesitation in the film. (This being said, Carl Sandburg had a much more favorable opinion of the film)

So what has the Bioscope not seen on day 2 of the Giornate film-fest? Well, charitably enough, it has left out a forgettable Renoir, Tire au flanc (1928), built in episodic fashion around the farcical–but not very funny, IMHO– figure of the ill-fitting poet serving in the military. Take that premise, think about 30 seconds about jokes built from that, and…they’re all in there. Contrast Fields’ Golf Specialist who piles up reason after reason for not hitting one simple golf ball (from the banal paper sticking to one’s fingers, to the absolutely irrelevant woman looking for her horse), to the girl every soldier wants to paw. Hmm…

Not that the film doesn’t have its moments of brilliance: the opening scene, with a Michel Simon possessed by an irrepressible urge to kiss his girlfriend as they’re setting up the table, the naughty camera movements, or, later, the march with gaz masks that becomes a huge collin-maillard party are good…but they’re only moments. The lack of a narrative arch is clearly a problem. While the first scene works because its main stated goal (the woman of the house wants to impress the invited Colonel) is smashed to bits, another scene such as the barrack scene has no clear narrative goal, and asks for our nostalgia for barrack life to function (along the line of “do you remember how droll army life was?”). And, let me tell you, that’s a non-starter: take it from one who’s been-there-done-that.

Next day: a lot of folks come to visit: Satan, Pickford, and American tourists — in that order.

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