Early & Silent Film

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The 18th British Silent Film Festival – finale.

Posted by keith1942 on September 21, 2015

Anzac Cove.

Anzac Cove.

Sunday morning returned us to World War I. The scene was set with a presentation on how film had treated the ill-fated Gallipoli failure. This was an event on which troops from the then empire – especially Australia and New Zealand – suffered heavy casualties. It is even now a day of remembrance in Australia. We watch several aspects including two films based [rather differently]] on the same book by Ernest Raymond. One was the relatively recent Gallipoli (1981) following the fate of two Australian recruits. The second was from a 1930 sound film, Tell England. A recent film, The Water Diviner (2014) also deals with these events: interestingly it provides much space and a certain sympathy for the Turkish combatants: not noticeable in the earlier films.

Tell England was also the morning feature. This was filmed by British Instructional Films and directed by Anthony Asquith. Asquith is a much neglected British director. His earlier silent films are very fine, and so is this early sound film. His output in the 1930s is less distinguished which is presumably down to the failings of the British industry. Whilst some of the sound sequences are clichéd there are stand-out action sequences. The most impressive is one featuring the allied landings, which intercuts specially filmed material with ‘found footage’ from 1915. Asquith’s early films show the influence of Soviet cinema, which he presumably saw at the London Film Society. There are examples in editing and montage in this film: and Asquith not only learnt from the techniques of Soviet filmmakers, but also clearly comprehended their use of montage. There are three listed cameramen, Jack Parker, Stanley Rodwell and James Rogers, and their black and white cinematography is extremely well done. The editor is Mary Fields and she also was obviously a fine talent.

After lunch we had a presentation on Early British Advertising Films. These ranged from 1903 to 1947. We saw scotch, matches, boot polish soap, railways, cycling and hot drinks. The early ones ran for under a minute. Then oddly there was a period of extended advertisements of several minutes, reverting in the 1950s to the earlier and shorter length. This is what we suffer today. The blessed aspect of early adverts is the absence of sound. I tend to think that the dialogue and commentary in contemporary adverts is somewhat worse than the images.

A 1920s advert.

A 1920s advert.

The last two films in the programme had already featured at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto. So, being fairly wacked, I am afraid I missed them. The first is a very fine late Scandinavian silent, Ragens Rike (The Kingdom of Rye, 1929). This is a rural drama with fine location filming: one of the pleasures of Swedish silent cinema.

The final film was Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s 1929 Arsenal. This is a classic of Soviet cinema, always worth revisiting. The film had a newly prepared electronic score by Guy Bartell. I have to ask friends how they found it. I trained back to Leeds, tired but replete.

This was a rewarding four days, and extremely well delivered. I did have some minor reservations, which are worth airing because they seem to me to be on the increase. The advance programmes did not have information on formats. One of the helpful De Montfort organisers provided me with a partial list. But even in the programme notes it was not always clear what format would be screened: there were 35mm, DCPs and DVDs. With some of the films from elsewhere it apparently was not always certain what format would arrive. But the bulk of the programme came from the BFI, so there must have been certainty in these cases. There is a mistaken assumption that watching digital is the same or better than celluloid. I thought, as with the Hitchcock silents and on this occasion with the Keaton, that this is not the case.

The notes on 35mm did provide frame rates. But this was not the case with DCPS. The sound films would run at 24 fps, but what happens with silents. FIAF has now provide specifications for silent running rates on digital: but there seems to be very little usage of these in the UK.

And none of the notes provided aspect ratios. This was a particular problem because early sound films tended to be in 1.33:1 with the framing reduced by the added soundtracks. And there was apparent frequent cropping in the 35mm sound prints. These require appropriate projection plates and lenses, which I assume the Phoenix do not have. But it would have been good to have been forewarned about this.

One of Leeds' 100 year-old cinemas.

One of Leeds’ 100 year-old cinemas.

Still my views are predominately positive and hopefully there will be future silent festivals. So I wanted to add two suggestions. One is that by number nineteen it will be long overdue to have a festival in the North of England. Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle and Sheffield could all provide excellent venues. And my own city of Leeds could also do so: and there are in or nearby the city five working cinemas that a hundred years ago were already exhibiting the films that are the subject of these festivals. We could also have an overdue appreciation of Louis Le Prince.

My other suggestion is regarding content. The films were fine, but I did weary slightly of the uncritical patriotism. It would be good to have early films from the Socialist and Labour Movements. Groups like Kino and the Film and Photo League continued making silents into the 1930s. And there were talented and interesting filmmakers like Ivor Montagu and Ralph Bond. Some of these films certainly survive, even if only in their original 16mm format. Wheel them out?

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