Early & Silent Film

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Posts Tagged ‘Accompaniment’

Early film screenings in 2018

Posted by keith1942 on January 3, 2019

Brüder, Deutschland 1929, Regie: Werner Hochbaum

The Sight & Sound new double issue has a lot of space devoted to the ‘top films of 2018’. Alongside this are lists of commendations of titles from particular territories or genres and one devoted to ‘five silent films to see’. This followed an article on the silent films that were accessible in 2018. There were some I saw and some I missed. But the article, like to list of titles, did not inform the reader of how and where the writer saw the titles. There were some comments on the non-silent Peter Jackson’s ‘rip-off’ from the Imperial War Museum materials. These were rather muted and those in the Silent Cinema London Blog were much more to the point.

In both cases there must be question regarding the format and the screening. In Britain most of the titles from the silent era come round on digital, and 2K DCP at that. No-one in Britain seems to have yet taken the trouble to follow the specifications for frame rates below 24 fps, most common in the silent era. So these titles must be step-printed to some degree.

And 35mm prints are not necessarily better. We had The End of St Petersburg / Konets Sankt-Peterburga (1927) in Leeds from a 35mm print and with a very good musical accompaniment. But the print was a sound version and the image was noticeably cropped because of the change in ratio. Some of the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival screenings were on 35mm but I only caught those in Leeds. Apparently part of the funding for this Festival comes for musical accompaniment. I assume this was the reason for experimentation. In this case the French film Ménilmontant 1926) on film but accompanied by Foley sound effects. This was not only bizarre but ruined the screening of the film. However, I am still able to travel and I was able to enjoy some fine quality films in good 35mm prints and screened and accompanied with due regard as the how films were presented in the earlier era.

The Berlinale had this very fine retrospective of Weimar Cinema. The whole programme was magnificent and even the digital transfers were well done. But the high point for me was:

Brüder / Brothers, Germany 1929 with a passionate accompaniment by Stephen Horne.

The Nitrate Weekend at the George Eastman Museum offered only sound features but included some pretty early prints. The Festival came to a fine climax with

Man of Aran, Britain 1934 with a well preserved print held by the Museum

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto offered what I thought was the strongest programme for several years. One of the real pleasures was series of film adaptation from the novels of Honoré de Balzac. One of the fine titles was;

Liebe, Germany, 1927. This was a well done adaptation of a fine novel with an impressive characterisation of the heroine by Elisabeth Bergner.

Le Giornate offers both 35mm and digital transfers, the latter of varying quality. But we had several of the latter that were very well done. Pride of place must go to;

Lasse Månsson fra skanne / Struggling Hearts, Denmark 1923. Set in the 17th war between Denmark and Sweden this transfer from 35mm looked excellent. The DCP was from the Danske Filminstitut. In other years there have been equivalent transfers from the Svenska Filminstitutet. The Scandinavian seem to have mastered this process.

The great beacon in Britain must be the Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum. If I was richer I would move closer. Late in the year we had their fourth Silent Film Weekend. There was a rich variety of titles and music. My standout was;

Turksib, USSR 1929. The film alternates scenes of idyll with driving montage, well set up by the accompaniment by Costas Fotopoulis.

There were many other fine prints, screenings and accompaniments. So this remains a good time to enjoy early films. However, Britain is not the best place to do this.

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Carbon Arc at the 2018 Il Cinema Ritrovato

Posted by keith1942 on July 5, 2018

One of the real pleasures at this archive festival are the screening sin the Piazzetta Pasolini sourced from 35mm prints and projected from a 1930s Prevost 35mm carbon arc machine. There is always a great moment when the projectionist ‘fires up’ the machine and a shaft of light beams upwards into the night sky. The Piazzetta is full of light and shadows and then the image appears on the screen. This rare pleasure fills the courtyard with people, early ones sitting, later ones standing or using makeshift furniture.

This year we had three evening screening, attesting to the growing popularity of the event. The screening were part of a retrospective to the work of the cinema of Naples and the film-maker Elvira Notari. With her husband Nicola, and their company Dora Films, she was an important producer and director in Neapolitan silent cinema, working from 1910 right into the 1920s. Only three films and fragments survive from her output of about sixty films. The programme was also a tribute to Vittorio Martinelli who died ten years ago, a passionate student and writer on these films. As in earlier festivals the titles were accompanied by Neapolitan musicians. Making the events event a glorious brew of film, colour and music.

The opening event offered three films accompanied by Antonella Monetti (voice and accordion] and Michele Signore [violin and mandolin], a duo who had accompanied the films when they were screened at an earlier retrospective in Frankfurt. Antonella and Michele regularly accompany Neapolitan films and arrange the music, including traditional Neapolitan songs. We enjoyed the main feature Un Amore selvaggio (19120 which had fine tinting beautifully illuminated by the carbon arc light. The film is a rural drama about class conflict, involving a brother and sister who are increasingly at odds with the landowner for whom they work. There were two compilations of sequences from films by Notari which do not survive in a complete form. These were L’Italia s’è desta (1927) and Fantasia ‘e surdato (1927).

The second event offered a single title, a French film made by an a Russian émigré in Naples in 1925, Naples au Baiser de feu. The accompaniment was by Guido Sodo [Mandolin and voice] and François Laurent [], a duo I have heard before with pleasure. The film followed the doomed romance of a popular singer of the city, but whose life style inhibits his commercial success. The object of his desire is a bourgeois young woman who suffers from a frail constitution. The plot-line, which included a poor girl’s equivalent obsession for the singer, was conventional but done with aplomb. And the film intercut many sequences filmed in the city, including a major festivity. This was tangential to the story but presented Neapolitan life with interest.

I missed the third screening but a friend who attended said that he thought the film fine and really enjoyed the musical accompaniment. The films ere both title by Notari, Napoli sirena delle canzoni (1929) and ‘A Santanotte (1922). The musicians were a five-piece group E Zézi Gruppo Operaio. ‘A Santanotte was another melodrama in a print with the original colours reproduced.

In the 1990s there were several years where we had Neapolitan films with live music in one of the Cortile that are in a Palacio around the Pizza Maggiore.. I remember them vividly now and I am sure that will be true of these events in the Piazzetta. The only experience to rival it is the equally rare opportunity of watching surviving nitrate prints.

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Ménilmontant, France 1926.

Posted by keith1942 on May 29, 2018

This title was screened at e Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017 in ‘The Canon Revisited’. We watched a DCP sourced from a 35mm distribution print. The film had been re-edited by a distributor adding intertitles in the 1928: we saw the original version without intertitles. And alternative title translates as ‘The Hundred Steps’.

The film is an early example of what became known as ‘French impressionist film’. The actual story is conventional and melodramatic. Two sisters who move from a rural town to Paris are the objects of passion by a young ‘Lothario’. This results in one sister becoming pregnant and the other falling into prostitution. Late in the film the two separated sisters meet in the streets, both sad victims.

There is a definite cross-over with D. W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm (1921). In fact some critics compared the performance of the younger sister (Nadia Sibirskaia) to that of Lillian Gish. She also plays in a Griffith-type sequence, when pregnant and starving she is given dry bread by a tramp sharing a park bench.

What made the film stand out was the style, which features many of the techniques that became common in impressionist films.

There are sequences of violence in rapid montage, of dreamlike multiple superimpositions and lap dissolves (all done in camera), of documentary like impressions …, of classical continuity editing.” (Richard Abel quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

The director, Dimitri Kirsanoff, seems to have done much of the hand-held camera work, which is another feature of the film. There are frequent scenes set in actual Paris streets, often after rain, or doused by the production: glistening cobble stones that must have looked great on nitrate.

Kirsanoff was Estonian who migrated to Paris. His father died in the Russian Revolution which seems to have darkened his views. He disliked ‘Potemkin’ but rated Stroheim. His helpmate was the film’s leading actor, Nadia Sibirskaia (originally a Breton Geneviève Lebas). They acted together in an earlier of his films, L’Ironie du destin (1921), now lost. Whilst Ménilmontant was a success after a screening at the avant-garde venue Théâtre du Vieux Colombier Kirsanoff’s career was caught between the conflicting pressures of commercial demands and avant-garde values. He made several more films but failed fine a niche in which to work consistently.

This title was screened in a double bill with Louis Delluc’s Fièvre (1921). The Catalogue offered the legend that Ménilmontant was transferred to digital at 18 fps and looked fine. Stephen Horne and Romano Todesco provided piano accompaniments to the films; both played music that was appropriate and set off the tenor of the titles.

I was able to revisit the film in May when it was screened from a 35mm print. The print was fine but the accompaniment was a problem. There was a piano, which offered sparse accompaniment which suited the film. However the dominant sounds were pre-recorded sounds and live Foley sounds. The pre-recorded sounds including rain and street noises. The live Foley offered aural representation of actions on screen. The nadir of this was when the sound of the munching of bread on the park bench was recreated. It is recorded that some silent screenings used sound machines and similar. But I cannot believe that such literal sound recreation happened for avant-garde films and/or at the Colombier. What made the practice even odder was that the afternoon of films opened with silent Laurel and Hardy titles: a pair of comics where live Foley sound could have been a successful addition.

So this is a rare occasion for me where digital trumps ‘reel’ film.

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