Back to the Future? The Golem, Faust, The Seashell and the Clergyman
Recently, I have seen three truly great silent films in London: The Golem (1920) directed by Paul Wegener with Wegener himself playing the Golem screened as part of Jewish Book Week at King's Place and accompanied by a new musical score by Robin Harris who played the piano, with Laura Anstee on the cello. You can see a ten minute version here without the Harris score; The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928) Germaine Dulac's extraordinary short film about a priest's erotic fantasies, perhaps the first surrealist film, made a year before Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's Un Chien Andalou. I saw this at the Roundhouse as part of the Reverb Festival, accompanied by Imogen Heap's equally pioneering a cappella score which she performed with the Holst singers, conducted by the London Contemporary Orchestra's Hugh Brunt (you can see the film here but without the Heap score); and F.W. Murnau's Faust (1926),
with Emil Jannings as Mephistopheles, a visual feast of innovation which I saw at The Royal Festival Hall with the Philharmonia Orchestra playing Aphrodite Raichopoulu's new score with improvisations by piano soloist Gabriela Montero. The visual and auditory surprises were myriad and the imaginative leaps made in these films and scores were far more astonishing than anything I've seen in recent cinema. Watch the trailer here.
I have also recently seen three contemporary films, all homages to the silent film era: Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, Martin Scorsese's Hugo, and Dan Pritzker's Louis. The first two films are by now renowned, the latter a weird pseudo-porn pastiche in which Louis Armstrong's New Orlean's childhood is reimagined via various early cinematic styles. The film was shown at the Barbican with a live score written by Wynton Marsalis. If it hadn't been for the score I would have walked out. (See Slant's review by Andrew Schenker here.) The chasm of quality of experience between the first three films and these last three is wide and deep. Sadly, while the films made in the 1920s were all about innovation, playing and stretching the medium to see what it could do, taking film to the limits of its capabilities and peering beyond, the three films made today contented themselves with relying exclusively on nostalgia and the backward glance--and so were fundamentally boring. (Thank god for the dog in The Artist who drew inspiration, of course, from Asta of The Thin Man movies but transformed his character into an original.)
T.S. Eliot said something to the effect of "mediocre artists borrow, great artists steal," meaning that all artists rely on the past for their material, but only those who truly make what they have taken their own achieve something transcendent. There was a great deal of borrowing in The Artist, Hugo, and Louis, but little theft. It was as if all three filmmakers were terrified of looking into the future, even fleetingly, to see where cinema may be headed. At a time when cineplexes are chronically empty, audiences far more content to stay at home and watch youtube and play video games, is nostalgia (and 3-D) really all the cinema has to offer us? I have noticed that the post-Oscar ads for The Artist claim that "It's not just a film, it's an "Experience." Vertigo, Sunset Boulevard, any Rudolph Valentino film, Citizen Kane, Singin' In The Rain and all the films The Artist borrows from are "experiences." The Artist is mostly retro camp.
Perhaps the remarkable popularity of silent cinema accompanied by newly commissioned live scores (all I've attended have been sold-out performances) points to what is missing from today's movies: the communal experience, the spontaneity and excitement of participating in innovation, the thrill of catching a glimpse of the future while mining the past.
In this vein, Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin at the Pompidou Centre in Paris has been making a film-a-day inspired by lost silent films in a series of "ciné-séances" called Spiritismes. The public is invited to witness the making of a new film inspired by a long-lost movie. Summoning spirits of lost cinema in theatrical “séances,” Maddin and his actors inhabit their ghostly scenarios. The project finishes on March 12. You can watch live streaming of the films being made on the Pompidou Centre website here.
For information about silent film screenings in London, go to the wonderful website Silent London
The organization Birds Eye View, dedicated to supporting women filmmakers, commissioned several new scores for silent films made by women, including Imogen Heap's score for The Clergyman and the Seashell.
A beautiful tribute to silent film is included in David Denby's gentle slam of The Artist in his New Yorker piece "The Artists."
For more on silent screenings across Britain see this Guardian post.
In June, Bologna's Cineteca Cinema Rediscovered festival will feature newly restored films by Lois Weber, who is described by Cineaste's editors as "a trail-blazing silent director known for her films exploring topics that reflected a prescient concern with the status of women in a male-dominated society." For more on Lois Weber, see The National Women's History Musuem's excellent on-line exhibit "Women in Early Film."
In October, the Pordenone Silent Film Festival will present "The Dickens Bicentenary," a series of silent films based on books by Charles Dickens.
Random list of films I've seen but haven't devoted a proper blog to with rating @ to @@@@@
The Vagabond (Directed by Raj Kapoor in 1951 when he was just 27, this steamy melodrama represents the birth of Bollywood. The incredible chemistry between Kapoor and his leading lady Nargis is irresistable. And I saw it at MoMA for free. I love New York.) @@@@@
Margin Call (Nothing new here, didn't get my blood boiling at all and the subject--Wall Street greed and arrogance usually does. Some good acting from a great cast but pretty forgetttable. I imagine the play was better.) @@
Young Adult (I think Charlise Theron might be my favorite actress at the moment. She's got talent plus diva quality. This film is one note but she's so fabulous.) @@@@
Shame (a shame, waste of Michael Fassbinder's considerable talents. Carey Mulligan singing New York, New York excruciating and not in the way intended. Plus is that New York? It occured to me while watching that Steve McQueen should watch Pasolini's opus and take notes.) @@
One Day (Help, the accent! Ugh. Anne Hathaway botched this one.) @
Crazy, Stupid, Love (Ryan Gosling, need I say more? Besides, it was really very funny at times. And the casting is just perfect.) @@@@
Ides of March (George Clooney's future may be as a director. This effort was admirable and entertaining. Plausibility a bit stretched but I didn't care much. Besides, Ryan Gosling, need I say more?) @@@@
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Second best film of 2011 for me. Gary Oldman channels Alec Guinness and I love the change of glasses to mark time. BBC series, however, still the best . If you want to read more about the book/film/series two excellent pieces, both in The New Yorker, are Anthony Lane's "I Spy" http://nyr.kr/uXIWBb and David Denby's "We are all Smiley's People" http://nyr.kr/zzS9vr) @@@@@
The Skin I Live In (Best film of 2011 for me--Almodovar pushes the form like no other director. Here he explores the pygmalion myth as only he can.) @@@@@
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (As a good a rendition of the book you'll get but ah, the book. Doesn't really translate to film. Maggie Smith great.) @@@
The Godfather (Hadn't seen it in years but what a flawless film. The horse head was a stroke of genius as was casting Diane Keaton as Al Pacino's wife. Marlon Brando, as always, was sublime.) @@@@@
Nowhere Boy (directed by artist Sam Taylor-Wood and also surprisingly mediocre. Straightforward biopic without any attempt at innovation. HBO would have done it better. Anne Marie Duff and Kristin Scott Thomas saved it from total irrelevance.) @@
The Ghost Writer (directed by Roman Polanski and surprisingly mediocre. Ewan McGregor saved it from total boredom. Hitchcock touches nice but not enough-Ok plane fare.) @@
Frida (directed by Julie Taymor is gorgeous to look at but the script was not up to the visuals. Salma Hayek superb but not oscar material since though crippled her face remains beautiful.)
La Vie en Rose (Incredibly depressing--didn't want to learn so much about the Diva. Cotillard excellent, obvious oscar for portrayal of yet another fallen, defaced woman.
Notes on A Scandal (Thin but Judi Dench is superb. She totally outshines Cate Blanchett. Equation of repressed lesbian stalker with female statuatory rapist interesting. At least Dench didn't turn out to be a serial killer.)
It's Complicated (Perfect plane fare, especially while trying to avoid volcanic ash cloud. I laughed out loud at least twice. Fun to watch Alec Baldwin completely upstage Steve Martin.)
Bulletproof Monk (Not nearly as good as the phenomenal Kung Fu Hustle, but entertaining nonetheless. My 9 yr. old loved it.)
A Serious Man (Seriously boring but then again maybe I just didn't get it 'cause I'm a goy.) @
2012 (Blah disaster movie in which a novelist who sells only 500 copies is the hero and one of the chosen. LOL.) @
Defiance (Casting excellent-Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell-and story excellent--about class and morality among Eastern European Jews during holocaust--but script very mediocre.) @@
Two Loves (I always wonder how films like this one ever get made. No there there. Though Pheonix plays the icky vulnerable male with panache.) @
Inglourious Basterds (Like the kitchen sink after an inedible feast. Worse than a bad Cohen brothers film. Flaccid and unfunny.) @
Valkyrie (Don't bother. Boring, slow, flat. Such a shame as I really loved Singer's Usual Suspects. Cruise's fault no doubt.) -@
The Departed (Solid later Scorsese fare, lots of blood and plot twists but just barely holds together. DiCaprio surprisingly good and I always love Baldwin.) @@@
Word Play (excellent documentary about the NYTimes crossword puzzle geeks. It gave me serious nerd envy.) @@@@
Rachel Getting Married (cast evenly black/white yet black actors get no lines of any significance. Even Anna Deveare Smith only mumbles. Shameful.) @
District 9 (Sci Fi at its best. Philip K. Dick would approve.) @@@@@
American Graffitti (quite experimental and what a young Harrison Ford) @@@@
My Man Godfrey (Depression era romcom with the sublime William Powell and Carole Lombard. All too relevant.) @@@@@
Julia (unlikely thriller made great by uber actress Tilda Swinton) @@@@
The Eyes of Laura Mars (70s fashion thriller with Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones) @@@@@