The sound of silents


This is a roundup of the silent film scene in London at the beginning of 2011 that was published in the Spectator arts blog, Night and Day.


Standing in the multiplex foyer, it looks as if you’re spoiled for choice. There are rom-coms, thrillers and cartoons, stammering kings, teenage wizards and paranoid ballerinas. But they’re all talkies. Because we all need to rearrange our cinematic scenery once in a while, silent film shows are popping up all over London – and they offer an experience you simply won’t find in the ten-screened mega-cinemas

What silent film shows offer, by way of a change, is sound. Live sound. Any silent film buff will tell you, with a sigh, that silent cinema was never silent. Each film was given a soundtrack by a mixture of musical accompaniment, narration, audience-participation sing-a-longs, sound effects and chatter. Modern silent film shows take the idea of musical accomplishment into every conceivable direction. From improvised piano melodies through to string quartets, punk bands, DJs, a Wurlitzer organ or a full-scale orchestra, live music energises an audience member more than a litre carton of cola and a cone of caramel popcorn ever could.

So, where can you see silent films on the big screen? In London, there are frequent screenings at the British Film Institute on the Southbank, at the Barbican Arts Centre and at the Prince Charles Cinema. The BFI has the advantage of a vast archive – and has had some success with its recent Most Wanted project, which called on members of the public to sift their attics for prints of missing films. You can watch one of the recovered films at the BFI Southbank next month – a Walter Forde comedy called What Next?

  The BFI is gratifyingly thorough, too. Its current Howard Hawks retrospective, for example, began with five films from the director’s pre-sound career. And for something a little higher of brow, this month BFI Southbank is premiering a new print of Hamlet (1920), starring Danish actress Asta Nielsen (in the title role, of course), with a live score.

The Barbican has also made silent screenings a priority. As well as hosting silent film festivals, its Silent Film and Live Music strand throws up some really interesting events and uses musicians from across all genres to soundtrack a diverse range of films. In February, for example, German keyboard and saxophone duo Reflektor2 will score two montage art films: Berlin, Symphony of a City (1927) and a short, Manhatta (1921).

The Prince Charles Cinema flies the flag for the silent era in the West End. This independent cinema, known for its revivals and cult film shows, screens a silent film once a month. In February, look out for its screening of the Soviet science-fiction film Aelita: Queen of Mars, with a soundtrack by Minima  a rock band that majors in silent film scores. (The PCC continues to find new acts to score its shows but the traditional improvised piano accompaniment – and there are more pianists specialising in this area than some may think – are definitely here to stay.)

Then there are the festivals. The first two will be hosted at the ICA and BFI Southbank. In March, the Birds Eye View festival is promising gothic silents – including Victor Sjostrom’s The Wind (1928), starring Lillian Gish – with new scores. The British Silent Film Festival will take place in April and has already announced five feature-length screenings (including Ozu’s I Was Born, But …, a Japanese silent from 1931), as well as compilations. We can also reasonably expect to see a silent film at the East End Film Festival in spring, and several at the Fashion in Film Festival at the end of the year.

  (The East End festival put on a great show last year: Hitchcock’s Ripper-inspired The Lodger [1927] in the heart of Spitalfields Market. The Fashion in Film Festival screened a number of hard-to-see films with live music in several venues and even installed ‘peephole’ kinoscopes across the city.)

  Outside London, we can also look forward to a brand new silent film festival in Bo’ness, Scotland – and the return of the Slapstick Festival in Bristol  at the end of this month. The festival – which has been running for years, attracts some very famous names and even boasts its own ‘Slapstick Ale’ – promises several features, a gala event and some previously unseen Chaplin footage.

Back in London, last year’s restored DVD release of Eisenstein’s awe-inspiring Battleship Potemkin (1925) is available as 35mm print. It’s just about to get a theatrical release in the US and should be coming to us later in the year. If it’s anything like the 2010 rollout of the reinvigorated Metropolis (1927), there will be plenty of chances to see it in cinemas, and, I hope, a few live shows too. At a rather glamorous night last year, the Roundhouse in Camden screened Metropolis with the London Contemporary Orchestra – and a film such as Potemkin deserves that kind of high-end treatment, too.

Then there are the one-offs; concert halls often become cinemas for the night as orchestras soundtrack silent films. Watch out for the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Carl Davis (an expert in the field), performing his score for The Phantom of the Opera (1925) at the Royal Festival Hall. Film societies tend to be keen supporters of silent film, too, so there may be a screening closer to you than you may think. (That’s definitely true if you live in Crystal Palace: watch out for a Buster Keaton / Laurel and Hardy double bill in April.) And don’t neglect your local boozer: film clubs often show silents to cinephile drinkers.

And there should be plenty of surprises. We already know that July’s I’ll Be Your Mirror pop festival in Alexandra Palace will host another opportunity to watch Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan Of Arc (1928) – with a score by Adrian Utley from Portishead and Will Gregory from Goldfrapp – but who knows what else the year will bring? If I had one wish, it would be that someone, somewhere, would programme a season of George Méliès’s beautiful ‘trick’ films to support the December rele
ase of Martin Scorsese’s 3D Hugo Cabret, which features a character based on the French filmmaker. Perhaps someone will. We just need to keep an eye out for these things.

Pamela Hutchinson blogs about silent film screenings at
Silent London


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