British despatch: London Symphony, and BFI-1914

Is it too soon to speak of a ‘wave’ of 21st century silents? We’ve had a great one (The Artist, 2011), a visually beautifully disappointment (Blancanieves, 2012), and some that totally missed the mark (cough).

Add to the former category a current project by Alex Barrett: London Symphony. Barrett and his team are drawing upon Soviet montage theory to create a portrait of the vitality and diversity of modern-day London, with a particular eye to modes of transport. This film will be a city symphony in the vein of films such as Ruttmann’s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927), Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1928), Sheeler and Strand’s Manhatta (1921), Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (1926), and São Paulo, Sinfonia da Metrópole (1929). Another strand of influence is the poetic realist tradition (e.g., Ivens’ Regen, 1929; the work of John Grierson; Koyaanisqatsi, 1983; and dare I say, In Spring). The location shots look stunning:

LS-06-sml   LS-09-smlLS-02-sml   LS-07-sml
Images courtesy of Alex Barrett

A previous short film, Hungerford: Symphony of a London Bridge (2009; watch here on Vimeo) is the prototype for London Symphony. I liked it very much; great combination of static and moving shots, beautifully edited. I can’t imagine how long the editing process would have taken. Hungerford is stylish and assured without being self-consciously retro in the way some néo-silent shorts I’ve seen are; it simply hits the mark.

Hungerford-Symphony-of-a-London-Bridge-CCTV    Hungerford-Symphony-of-a-London-Bridge-bridgemove

 Clearly, London Symphony will be one to look forward to! Alex even has the endorsement of Kevin Brownlow, that god among film archivists, as well as other silent-world movers and shakers like Pamela Hutchinson and Bryony Dixon. Alex is currently running a crowdfunding campaign to complete the project; also regard his campaign video (which includes some great familiar shots). This all looks fantastic. Can someone do a project like this for my city, too?

1914 on film at the British Film Institute

A couple of months ago, the BFI launched a new channel on their online video website: 1914 on film. As they write:

What did our forebears watch a century ago? Discover the cinema of 1914 in this very mixed programme from the year the world changed.

Some cool material is on display: Shackleton’s dogs, a trick film where a magnifying glass gives x-ray vision, a saucy vicar. While I’m grateful that material is made available in any form – I truly believe that we are living in the golden age, film-accessibility-wise – the quality of the digital encode for the videos on display is disappointing, to say the least. Perhaps it is a deliberate strategy to control reuse of the material, or maybe their policy is that free-to-play material is only released in low quality. So many blocking artefacts:



This has me thinking … has any archival-type website really cracked the presentation of online video?  European Film Gateway has great material, but is seriously hampered by its bizarre lack of a proper search function. (Although, must mention that some of the institutions from which it draws material have quite good interfaces; for example, the Filmportal, and the Cineteca di Bologna’s Cinestore). Australian Screen Online is one of the best, in my opinion – the design is fantastic, and it features very in-depth curatorial notes. Unfortunately, you cannot usually watch whole films there (though they have a function to freely allow people to download clips, which is cool).

ASO_The Woman Suffers (1918)-Lottie-Lyell-1

The wonderful Lottie Lyell in The Woman Suffers (AU 1918)

But from the Antipodes back to Britannia – a propos of nothing, here’s a GIF from The White Shadow (GB 1923), a very silly film that I didn’t get around to reviewing when I watched it a while back.


Betty Compson as Nancy, the ‘bad’ twin.

And remember: please consider throwing a few quid towards London Symphony!  There are some great pledge rewards. Apart from downloads of the film, Alex and co. are offering very cool rewards like copies of the script, flipbooks, photographic prints, and etchings. And even the opportunity to be in the film!


London Symphony poster by Andrew Yap.

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2 Responses to British despatch: London Symphony, and BFI-1914

  1. Popka Superstar says:

    London Symphony does sound fantastic! I need to watch those BFI films, but uugggh terrible quality. Such a put off.

    I guess there is a bit of a silent film wave, but since I never watch arthouse I don’t know what it’s a reaction to, except for over-CGI-d mainstream films.


    • Yeah, I wondered if it was a problem with my computer (too old, lack of correct plugins, etc), but the BFI videos still looked pretty bad when I checked them out on other computers. Such a missed opportunity.
      I’m pretty excited about London Symphony. Really hope that they meet their funding goal.


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