Being now in the final days of 2014, it’s time to take stock of this year. Here is the official Silents, Please! year in review. I’m not into ordered lists, so it’s simply a series of notes and a prize-giving of sorts for the notable (mostly) silent-film related moments of 2014.
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In no particular order – five key silent film things of 2015 for me:
Films Albatros. My big discovery of the year: a Russo-French film studio producing some of the most interesting films of the era. Stunning sets and mise en scène, sophisticated storytelling … lots of style and creativity.
Films online: the European Film Gateway. The site’s clunkiness hides its many treasures; dig around and you will find some great things: previously unavailable Asta Nielsen films S.1 (DE 1913) and Das Mädchen ohne Vaterland (DE 1912); the cautionary tale of Absinthe (US 1913); the Sessue Hayakawa film His Birthright (US 1918); and the Fern Andra circus film Um Krone ein Peitsche (DE 1918). The EFG has been around for a few years, but it seems like a lot of new material made its way there in late 2013/early 2014 – I had been waiting for Das Geheimschloss (DE 1914) to pop up. It’s a great project and it’s too bad that it seems that it’s no longer being developed or added to. I reviewed several films from the site – see this tag.
Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. The silent film event of any year, really. A visual feast of films, a culinary feast of Italian food and wine, old and new friends, 3am penguin football … it was wonderful. I won’t be back for a few years now, sadly, but I enjoyed it to the fullest this year; my recaps can be found here.
Die Nibelungen (DE 1924). I’d never seen Fritz Lang’s duology before this year and I was blown away.
Photos via the Filmportal
Evgeni Bauer. He wasn’t a 2014 discovery for me, but this was the year that I really dug into his oeuvre. What a talent.
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Non-Pordenone film events: It was great to see Show People (US 1928) on the big screen at my local film festival. And of course, the nights I’ve spent watching silents with my partner and my dear friends are some of the best times of all.
Silent film purchase of the year: Somehow, I made rather numerous silent film purchases this year. Top of the list must be the Films Albatros boxset released by Flicker Alley (yes, I’m late to the party – it was a 2013 release); the films look great and are presented beautifully. I was also very happy to get hold of the great Ukrainian Re-Vision | Укрїнське Німе boxset released by the Oleksandr Dovzhenko Centre in Kyiv, Ukraine, which comes with a thick book full of biographical and production information. Also worthy of mention: I snapped up a copy of 野玫瑰 | Wild Rose (CN 1932) when it was screened locally, and have really been enjoying Cineteca di Bologna’s Comic Actresses and Suffragettes release.
In non-DVD items, I acquired some beautiful film lobby cards in Italy and the Netherlands, and also this wonderful cup from EYE Film Instituut:
Silent film book of the year: I finally bought a copy of Yuri Tsivian (et al)’s Silent Witnesses, an invaluable work. Predictably, I’ve forgotten most of the titles I wanted to mention, but I particularly enjoyed Cari Beauchamp’s biography of Frances Marion, Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood (1998), which works well as a complement to Eileen Whitfield’s Mary Pickford bio. I thoroughly enjoyed my reread of Swanson on Swanson (1980), and in fiction, Gert Hofmann’s The Film Explainer (1990) is up there with The Book of Illusions (Paul Auster, 2002) as my favourite silent film-related fiction.
Intertitle of the year: I still can’t get over this gem from Das Frauenhaus von Rio (DE 1927):
“Don’t panic, you have fallen into white slave traders’ hands!”
Most misogynistic film of the year: That honour goes to the suffragette ‘comedies’ I wrote about here … rage-inducing.
The ‘male tears’ award for misandry: Balancing the scales was Il fuoco (IT 1915). An all-time favourite of mine.
The best eyebrows: Margarete Schön as Kriemhild has this one sewn up.
Speaking of which … the best silent film-related birthday card I received: This beauty, courtesy of my dear friend Emily.
The best silent film card that I sent: Sadly, I think I forgot to take pictures of the Asta and Musidora postcards I made for friends. But luckily, pictorial proof of the most important card survives:
The best text conversation I had about Ivan Mosjoukine:
(I got her airbrushed Vanya in the end. As for me, I couldn’t resist Le Lion des Mogols Moz).
The internet in real life, silent film edition: Realizing that we made up a silent film blogging coterie when Pamela (Silent London), Nina (Primeiro Cinema) and I were chatting in front of the Teatro Verdi.
The internet in real life, silent film edition 2: Meeting my internet friend from Finland in Pordenone and having dinner with him and another Nitratevillain.
Silent film anticipations for 2015: Flicker Alley should be releasing La Maison du Mystère (FR 1923); and will we finally see Algol (DE 1920), Der Student von Prag (DE 1913), and the Barnet comedies from Edition Filmmuseum? I also eagerly await Cineteca di Bologna’s annual release: high profile Italian films of 1915 include the Lyda Borelli film Il fior di male, preserved by EYE and currently unavailable to the public; Bertini’s Assunta Spina (unlikely, since it has seen a Kino release) or La Signora delle camelie | The Lady of the Camellias; Emilio Ghione’s Za-la-mort; Eleonora Duse’s sole foray into film in Cenere | Ashes; or even (dare to hope), Il fuoco – which is preserved by the Museo Nazionale del Cinema, but then, the CdB have done coproductions before. Or who knows, they could come from left-field and release something like Filibus. In books, both EYE’s colour film publication and Eastman House’s Technicolour book look amazing.
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The most astounding film of the year: Трудно быть богом | Hard to be a God (RU 2013). A mind-boggling work of art and one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. The premise is science-fictional (set on a parallel earth-type-world mired in their Middle Ages, a scientist from another planet who is living there to observe can only exert limited influence on that society), but that setup is almost incidental to the action of the film. I’ve heard it described as cinéma vérité of the Middle Ages, which is an accurate description; Hard to be a God is full of mud and squalor, sometimes disturbing, but choreographed expertly and filmed extremely elegantly in black and white. A totally immersive film and one that I’m very glad that I saw on the big screen.
Speaking of epic, bizarre Russian films based on the Strugatsky brothers’ work, this was also the year I finally watched Tarkovsky’s Сталкер | Stalker (RU 1979). Very intriguing film; in different ways, it put me in mind of A Canticle for Leibowitz, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The best film I watched on an airplane: A Woman’s Face (US 1941). The premise: Joan Crawford is a nihilistic blackmailer (apparently an actual profession in 1941) because one side of her face has a horrible burn scar. She falls in love with Conrad Veidt, who is also evil. Then her face gets healed, and since, as we all know, looks = morality, she then becomes less committed to wrongdoing. She and Conny have a scheme to profit from murdering a child … but can she go through with it? Spoiler alert: no. I genuinely liked this film. It’s perhaps less than the sum of its parts, but it had some great scenes.
Best rewatch: The Scarlet Empress (US 1934). I love everything about this movie. And Purple Rain, which I even watched on the exact 30th anniversary of its release.
The ‘Why isn’t this more well known?’ award: Times Square (US 1980): two teenage girls in New York escape from a mental hospital, live in a squat, and start a musical and art-happening sensation. This film seems to be most well-known for its new-wave soundtrack, which is a virtual roll-call of all the best names of that era. I thought it was a really unique story, primarily a portrait of a complicated and intense friendship between two women, but with some interesting asides on youth culture, medicalisation of female behaviour – and just a general kick-ass outlook.
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A film workshop in Rotterdam
My film-filled holiday included taking in a 16mm film workshop held at the Filmwerkplaats at WORM in Rotterdam and taught by Kevin Rice of Process Reversal. The timing was fortuitous; I had no idea about the workshop before a friend mentioned it to me in Pordenone and I decided to sign up. It was a lot of fun, and informative! I came in with some background (I work with film, and I’ve done quite a lot of darkroom still photography in the past), but it was really valuable to see a more artisanal/DIY approach, what tricks and procedures are used by those working in this manner, etc.
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And other media …
Books: Two of my favourite reads this year were Audre Lorde’s memoir Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982) and Clarice Lispector’s strange, metaphysical novel The Passion According to G.H. (1964). I enjoyed Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (1840) tremendously. I also read quite a lot of Ivan Turgenev’s output: my favourites were the novella Spring Torrents (1872) and the collection of vignettes Sketches from a Hunter’s Album (1852).
Music. It was a great year for experimental/noise music. Apart from all the local stuff, there were shows by Matmos, Merzbow, Peter Brötzmann … even Kronos Quartet, who I’ve waited years and years to see. I’m not the best at keeping up with new releases, but I really liked Owen Pallett and Chromeo’s new albums. As always, I listened to a ton of Prince and p-funk.
Art. I saw some neat things on holiday: EYE’s Anthony McCall exhibition was really great, something that I enjoyed much more than I thought I would. My favourite art thing this year, though, was William Kentridge’s video-installation The Refusal of Time (2012), which I went to see several times. Vibrant, beautiful, and thought-provoking … it also contained some allusions to early cinema, adding another layer of interest for me. Also screened were his series of hand-drawn animations, Drawings for Projection (1989 – 2011). Kentridge is one of the best, certainly.
Felix in Exile (1994); The Refusal of Time (2012).
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And life … It wasn’t an easy year for me, in many ways. The lows were low (the continued reign of John Key; a very stressful workplace; health issues), but on the other hand: an amazing holiday to Italy and the Netherlands; great nights out (and in); some fantastic cultural events; friends, family … true love. Still: 2015, I’m ready!
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A blog about silent film? Reflecting on this project
I started this blog in May, after having been thinking about such a project for some months. My idea was simple: an outlet for thinking and writing about some of the silent films that I watch, using a lot of animations to illustrate. I particularly wanted to shine a light on films that maybe aren’t considered classics or aren’t so well-known; some films or genres I really like don’t have much written about them online, and I thought it would be nice to put something out there about those. Covering the silent canon was and is low on my agenda for pragmatic reasons; what could I write about – for example – The Wind or Die Büchse der Pandora that has not already been said?
Thoughts about blogging. I’ve met my main goals, which were to have fun with this project and post pretty consistently. So from that point of view, it’s a success! I do feel that the quality of my writing varies (as well my GIFs … probably the kids on Tumblr aren’t much impressed), but it’s coming along. It’s a learning process, really, figuring out how to write, and identifying what films would suit (or merit) discussion in this format. There were a lot of films that I watched and enjoyed that I didn’t write up, just because I didn’t have much to say about them or was too busy at the time. Some of my personal favourite reviews include my entries on После смерти | After Death (RU 1915), Das Geheimschloß (DE 1914), La Dame Masquée | The Masked Lady (FR 1924), Hamlet (DE 1921) … and I really enjoyed doing the diva series, those wonderfully dramatic Italian women. As for my favourite GIFs, there are just too many candidates …
A recent innovation: A directory page is now available!
Upcoming attractions: So what’s on the agenda for 2015? I already have a few 1915 films picked out to cover; I have a couple of themed series in mind; and at some stage I’ll probably do a few more films from my obvious favourites (Asta, Bauer, divas, women in film in general). The focus will probably remain on films of the teens, plus interesting oddities that I’ve come across. There are many films on my original plan of what I’d cover, too, that I simply didn’t get to. As well, I’d like to do more general/thematic articles rather than just looking at individual films, but those take so much longer to write that I’ll have to pick my battles. I would really be interested in any feedback that people may have – what worked, what didn’t? What would people like to see more or less of in future?
And in conclusion … Thank you to all who have been reading along, and particularly those who have liked and commented – that makes my day!