Early & Silent Film

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Silent Cinema A Guide to Study, Research and Curatorship. By Paolo Cherchi Usai.

Posted by keith1942 on March 27, 2020

The author in interview at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto

I read most of this book during Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019, a week dedicated to screening films from the Silent Era. I was able to enjoy the silent films with new aspects to my understanding. Paolo Usai was one of the founders of this Festival, now in its 38th year. Since then he has worked in a number of archives, most recently as Senior Curator of the Moving Image Department at George Eastman Museum. These years of viewing, studying and preserving early film have fed into an impressive study of the thirty plus years of the new art and entertainment form of Cinema. He has also made good use of his discussions and collaboration with a host of scholars and archivists who receive acknowledgement here.

The sub-title of the book may suggest a specialist work. This is true in part, but the writing and presentation as generally accessible and the detail information and comment on the Silent Era is of a quality and comprehension that is not found in  preceding works with which I am familiar.

The book has three main components. First there is an introduction where he places photo-chemical film in the context of the digital age. He carefully points out the differing characteristics of early nitrate film [a combustible material]; its successor safety film stock; and the current digital formats. Whilst safety film is a less than complete copy of the nitrate originals he point out that digital is really a facsimile; something often overlooked in the hype of this new technology. The difference can be appreciated at one of the few occasion for viewing nitrate film, The George Eastman ‘Nitrate Picture Show’. I was fortunate to see Ramona (1928) in a fine surviving print, starring Dolores del Rio. Having seen the film a year earlier on a safety 35mm print I was able to appreciate the distinctive luminous image, typical of well preserved nitrate; I also enjoyed the musical accompaniment by Phil Carli; such accompaniments are now standard for ‘silent’ screenings.

The curtain rises for a nitrate screening in the Dryden Theatre.

Over eight succeeding chapters and nearly two hundred pages, Paulo Usai gives an account, section by section, of early cinema, when nitrate film without sound tracks was the form of moving image. He works through the actual film’s stock, including how it was processed: the equipment, both in the studios and in the theatres: the people, a host of roles in a variety of situations: the buildings, developing from primitive conversions to magnificent picture palaces: and the show, including the music or narrators [like the Japanese Benshi, a dramatic example] and even early attempts at synchronised sound. He points out, with detail, just how far from silent were early film shows. And also explains why surviving music for screenings can assist in working out more about how the film was presented.

This is detailed but only in a few places very technical. I was pleased to finally get my head round the colour systems used in early film, which were not all just in black and white. Usai also carefully discusses the factors that made for variation in frame rates [and therefore film running times]; an issue that remains contentious today. Paolo Usai is careful to draw distinctions, as far as research so far has identified, of the variants round the global industry. Early film prints were sold and the buyer could and did alter them; and the rental system, still with us today, only emerged slowly and territory by territory. Another recent area of research is the differences made by translations, including dubbing and sub-titling.

The final hundred pages address the recovery, preservation, restoration and presentation of surviving silents; only about a third of the total produced and circulated. As a case study he discusses the 2011 version of Georges Méliès A Trip to the Moon (originally 1898) produced by Lobster Films from a number of surviving copies. I saw this at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto and was not happy about the digital version or the type of music used for accompaniment, which I found  inappropriate. The digital version, and indeed a 35mm version, looked good but they were closer to the distinctive visual patina of digital than to the more luminous patina of actual film. An example I prefer that he mentions is the 2016 restoration of Kean (1924) by the Cinémathèque française. The tinting and toning was done by the Czech specialist Jan Ledecký using the techniques from the 1920s. I saw this at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto; a film I had seen before but the difference in the 35mm was lovely to behold.

‘Kean’, 1924 with Ivan Mosjoukine

Usai describes how, over decades and at first involving dedicated cinephiles, the present approaches to archival work, study and exhibition developed. My first Pordenone in 1993 was rather like visiting an esoteric celebration; but also one of wonder. Now silent films are relatively common, though as Paulo points out, restrictions of funding and technological provision mean that seeing them on [reel] film is less common.

The Bibliography is very well set out. The appendices, examples of research tools in this area of endeavour, assist in illuminating the topic; for example, ‘The Film Measurement Table’ showing the running times of 35mm and 16mm at different frame rates. The copious illustrations are both well chosen and well produced ; the colour plates are a delight.

This book is likely to appeal to readers who already enjoy silent film. Paulo’ Usai’s description and explanation across the field of this median is absorbing and I thought fascinating. The coverage really does achieve a comprehensive picture of the median and the era.

Silent Cinema

A Guide to Study, Research and Curatorship.

By Paolo Cherchi Usai.

BFI/ Bloomsbury Publishing. 2019. Third edition, considerably expanded from previous editions.

403 pages, with Bibliography, three Appendices and an Index.

213 illustrations, 10 charts and diagrams and 53 colour plates.

In hardback, paperback 978-1-8445-7528-2 and electronic versions.

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