D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is inarguably one of the landmarks of American cinema. The distillation of the storytelling techniques, editing ideas, framing and visual composition, and nuanced approaches to performance that Griffith spent years exploring and experimenting with in short subjects and mid-length films, it was the longest and most ambitious American ever made when it was released in 1915 and it took American audiences, critics, and filmmakers by storm. It also features demeaning caricatures of African American characters (all played by whites in blackface) and grotesque distortions of the post-war Southern history and it portrays the Ku Klux Klan as the saviors of white culture in the face of emancipation. It is, in the words of journalist Jelani Cobb, “The most pure, honest, unfiltered distillation of white racist thought of that time.”
The Independent Lens film Birth of a Movement is a reminder that criticism of Nation‘s racist politics is not a recent phenomenon.
Children of Divorce (1927) (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) is one of those silent films that isn’t exactly a classic but possesses an irresistible allure. The star power and cinematic charisma of Clara Bow, the definitive flapper of the silent era, and young Gary Cooper lights up this somewhat silly melodrama of the young, beautiful and idle rich who treat marriage as a game.
It opens on a “divorce colony” in Paris, where the recently single society players goes to pair off once again in hopes of upgrading. To grease the wheels of romantic negotiations, the kids are dropped off in an orphanage filled with the inconvenient children of the newly (and temporarily) single. That’s where little Kitty Flanders is abandoned to the nuns, and where she meets her new best friends: Jean Waddington and Teddy Lambie, also abandoned by divorced parents. It’s heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time.
Jump ahead to “America – Years Later” and Clara Bow is the party girl spitfire Kitty Flanders, raised by an oft-divorced mother to marry into money, and Cooper is her best friend Teddy…
A new restoration of Ousmane Sembène’s debut feature Black Girl (1966) plays for a week at Grand Illusion. It was inspired by a news item he spotted in a French language paper, Sembène turns the brief mention into a painful portrait of a young woman who suddenly loses her freedom and her identity when transplanted from her native Dakar to France, where she toils as a maid. Sembène’s attack on neo-colonialism and “the new slave trade” (Sembène’s words) of African workers in Europe won a number of awards and was widely praised, and has since come to be regarded as the first important film of the black African cinema.
Seattle Transmedia and Independent Film Festival (STIFF) returns with a new venue—Factory Lux in the Rainier Brewery Building on Airport Way—for an abbreviated 2016 run. Opens Thursday, July 28 with the documentary Screenagers and plays through Sunday, July 31. Full schedule and more information at the STIFF website here.
Portland-based film preservationist Ned Thanhouser presents “The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of American Cinema,” a presentation of films produced by the short-lived but influential studio that thrived between 1909 and 1918 with a slate of professional and inventive short films and serials that gave the Hollywood studios a run for their money. The program plays at SIFF Film Center on Saturday, July 30 and is free to SIFF Members.
San Francisco-based filmmaker Paul Clipson presents a collection of his experimental films on Friday, July 29 at NWFF, with live musical accompaniment by Seattle musician Liz Harris of Grouper, and on Sunday, July 31, Sabine Gruffat & Bill Brown accompany their impressionistic documentary Speculation Nation (2014).
The Seattle Art Museum summer film series Cary Grant for President continues with Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House (1948), co-starring Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas. It screens on Thursday, August 4 at 7:30pm at Plestcheeff Auditorium and is shown on 35mm. Individual tickets are available on the day of show on a first come, first served basis. Details here.
The 1923 French feature L’Inhumaine (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray), which translates to The Inhuman Woman, is not exactly about a femme fatale, though singer and social diva Claire Lescot (played by real-life opera star Georgette Leblanc) does enjoy the power she wields over the rich and famous men who attend her exclusive salons. They compete for her attentions and affections, which she withholds with a twisted smile. Leblanc doesn’t quite convince us of her overpowering charms—she’s confident and even commanding on the screen playing the arrogant superstar but she radiates little sex appeal—but then the melodrama itself is a conventional construct used to show off director Marcel L’Herbier’s ambitions. There’s a suicide, a scandal, a romance, and a resurrection, plus jealousy and vengeance, and forgiveness rolled through the two hour drama.
Jaque Catelain plays the young engineer and scientist Einar Norsen, a figure of youthful idealism and emotional impulsiveness who proves to be much more formidable and visionary than his initial impressions suggest. His angular face could be carved from stone and he cuts a striking figure in both his tuxedo and his laboratory coveralls, which look more like a space suit than a jumpsuit. His amazing laboratory all but wins the heart of Claire, who proves less inhuman than simply arrogant and haughty. But she also has a stalker or two among her spurned suitors and they plot their revenge against her, one of them in a plot that he could have stolen from Fantomas.
L’Herbier, the director of The Late Mathias Pascal (1924) (released on Blu-ray and DVD by Flicker Alley in 2012), was a modernist and an innovator in the lively culture of French cinema in the twenties. L’Inhumaine is, as the credits read, “A fantasia by Marcel L’Herbier,” and he gathered an impressive collection of collaborators. The modern mansions (seen from the outside as delightful miniatures, complete with toy cars crawling past to park) are designed by architect Robert Mallet-Stevens with the interiors given expressionist grandeur by future filmmakers Alberto Cavalcanti and Claude Autant-Lara and a magnificent fantasy of a modern laboratory, more spectacular than functional with its moving parts and electrical arcs zapping across the screen, designed and constructed by painter Fernand Léger, who also designed the animated credits. The next year he made his own directorial debut with the avant-garde classic Ballet Mécanique (1924). These elements are marvelous but it’s L’Herbier who brings it all together with cinematic brio and dazzling visual intensity.
The film has been tinted as originally conceived by L’Herbier, using archival notes. Features French intertitles with English subtitles, choice of two excellent musical scores (both newly composed for this release), and two featurettes, plus a booklet with notes on the director and the film.
The Heart of the World, one of a half-dozen shorts he made between his dreamily surreal pastoral fantasy Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997) and his ballet-as-expressionist horror meditation Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2003), is the essence of Guy Maddin condensed into a brilliant, breathless, breakneck science fiction thriller. How marvelous that Maddin’s first major film of the 21st century looks like a mad masterpiece from the fevered mind of a silent moviemaker from 1925, discovered in the buried time-capsule vault of an asylum for insane artists. It just may be the greatest six-minute film ever made.
Maddin described his silent movie fantasia, produced for the 2000 Toronto International Film Festival to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of TIFF, as “world’s first subliminal melodrama.” There are two brothers, Nikolai the youthful mortician who seems just a little too passionate about his work, and Osip, an actor playing Christ in a passion play who takes lives the role outside of the play. They are both in love with Anna, a scientist who turns a vast telescope inward to the center of the earth to study the heart of the world: a literal beating heart, of course, and in danger of a world-shaking heart attack.
Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913) is not quite a movie—it’s a reconstruction of an unfinished film undertaken without complete materials or documentation—and at the same time it is much, much more. Starring Bert Williams, a major singer and stage star of the era, and Odessa Warren Grey, it’s not just one of the rare black cast films of the silent era. This is a portrait of urban black society that defies the stereotypes that became standard in American films just a few years later, featuring a wide array of classes and character types. Apart from its entertainment value (and even unfinished it is fun), it is a significant piece of cinematic, cultural, and social archaeology.
It plays on Monday, February 22 at the Paramount in the “Silent Movie Mondays” series with a filmed introduction by Rob Magliozza from the Museum of Modern Art (which undertook the restoration of the discovery), the Bert Williams short film A Natural Born Gambler (1916), and a post-screening discussion. Showtime and programming details here and for more background on the film, read Nsenga Burton’s essay here.
Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights Trilogy, adapted from “One Thousand and One Nights” and updated to contemporary Portugal, plays at SIFF Film Center this week. Each film—The Restless One, The Desolate One, and The Enchanted One—is a separate admission and plays multiple times throughout the week. Details and showtimes at SIFF.net.
John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon turns 75 this year and Fathom Events brings it back to the big screen in select theaters across the country for two nights this week: Sunday, February 21 and Wednesday, February 24. You can find participating theaters in your area here.
Theeb, the Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film from Jordan, is back to play for one show only on Monday, February 22 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. Details here.
In 1926, film critic and future filmmaker John Grierson wrote in The Sun (under the pseudonym “The Moviegoer”) that Robert J. Flaherty’s “Moana, being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth, has documentary value.” Whether or not it is the first use of the term to describe nonfiction filmmaking, it was the first to appear in the public discourse and it stuck, making Robert Flaherty, in a sense, the first documentary filmmaker.
But the next line in Grierson’s review is at least as important in defining the work of Flaherty: “But that, I believe, is secondary to its value as a soft breath from a sunlit island, washed by a marvelous seas, as warm as the balmy air. Moana is first of all beautiful as nature is beautiful…”
Flaherty was by no means the first nonfiction filmmaker of the cinema…. But it is Robert Flaherty that we celebrate as the father of documentary filmmaking and his debut film, Nanook of the North (1922), the first great nonfiction feature.
“I’ve always been, since my early, early days, a silent film fanatic, or aficionado, or whatever you call it.”
After a successful career in the tech world, lifelong silent movie fan and President of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Rob Byrne decided what he really wanted to do with his life: restore movies. So in 2006, at a point when, in his own words, “I could go after and do what I wanted to do,” he moved to Amsterdam for two years to attend the master’s program in film preservation at the University of Amsterdam. After internships at several different archives, he received an award from the Netherlands Filmmuseum (now the EYE Film Institute) and Haghefilm to restore the 1923 Pola Negri film The Spanish Dancer. He’s now back in San Francisco and building a legacy as an independent film restorer and preservationist. His restorations of the Douglas Fairbanks features The Half-Breed (1916) and The Good Bad Man (1916), the three-reel When the Earth Trembled (1913) and the San Francisco-shot The Last Edition (1925) all premiered at SFSFF over the past few years.
Byrne’s most recent project is one of the most important restorations of the last decade: the long-assumed-lost 1916 Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette, the definitive Sherlock Holmes of the stage.
Fantômas (Kino Classics, Blu-ray) – There may be no more creatively energetic, playfully inventive, and entertaining surreal filmmaking in the years 1913 and 1914 than the five wicked short features of Louis Feuillade’s serialized adaptations of the pulp adventures of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, films that captured the imaginations of filmgoers of the time and inspired the crime and adventure serials of the next decade, including Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse films.
Thief, assassin, escape artist and master of disguises, Fantômas (played with calm, stylish command by Rene Navarre) is the cinema’s first supervillain, an anti-hero who is very much the center of attention in this mad masterpiece of secret identities, violent conspiracies and cliffhanger twists. The character of this pulp mastermind was established in blitzkrieg of pulp adventures cranked out by the authors at the rate of one a month for 32 months between 1911 and 1913. That, according to film historian David Kalat, has a lot to do with the incoherence of the plotting. The rest is a matter of Feuillade’s breakneck pace of filmmaking: he made these five feature-length (some just barely) films in a single year, in which he also turned out almost fifty short films (most of them with his popular child star Bout-de-Zan). I don’t think there was anyone more prolific than Feuillade in the early teens, and this while also serving as the artistic director of Gaumont.
Moana with Sound (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) – After creating what (in retrospect) is generally considered the first documentary feature, Nanook of the North, in the snows of northern Canada, filmmaker Robert Flaherty traveled to the South Seas island of Savai’i to create a similar production around the Polynesian natives. Like Nanook, Moana (1926) is not a true documentary record but a recreation of a long lost culture for the cameras created in collaboration with locals, who draw from their own historical memory. And it was the film that inspired the term “documentary,” which film critic (and later documentary producer) John Grierson coined while reviewing the film.
Moana is a poetic portrait of Polynesian life as an South Seas paradise, the opposite of Nanook, where the Inuit people fight to survive the harshness of the elements. The pace of life is easy and gentle in the Pacific sun, food plentiful in the sea and growing all around them, just waiting for anyone—even a child—to pluck the coconuts off the trees. Hunting and gathering is akin to play in this culture that was, again as in Nanook, long lost by the time Flaherty put his camera on these people. His filmmaking reflects the theme, each scene taking its time to play out, not to record every detail of finding fresh water in a branch, climbing a palm tree with a simple woven band wrapped around the ankles, or hunting a wild boar (the only real threat to human life on the island), but to appreciate the grace with which these activities are accomplished. The gentleness of the filmmaking—which was as painstakingly created for the camera as any Hollywood drama—creates a lovely, luscious film, a great leap forward in Flaherty’s cinematic talent.
Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) – In 1914 Charlie Chaplin, the most famous comic performer in Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, was lured away by Essanay Studios with a huge increase in salary and the promise of creative freedom. Chaplin made the most of it and you can watch his evolution over the course of the 14 official shorts (and one unofficial short) of this collection, all produced in 1915. This is the American Blu-ray debut of the films from newly remastered editions, a project undertaken in collaboration with Lobster Films, David Shepard and Blackhawk Films, and the Cineteca Bologna.
Chaplin stars with Ben Turpin in His New Job, set at a movie studio, and A Night Out, where they play a pair of sloppy drunks raising havoc at a posh eatery. Edna Purviance, who co-stars in all subsequent Essanay shorts, joins Chaplin with The Champion, where a hidden horseshoe in a boxing glove promotes the tramp from sparring partner (“This gink wants his face kalsomined,” reads one particularly rich title) to challenger to the boxing title. In the Park, a shapeless gag fest where the tramp crosses paths with a pickpocket (identified as “a biter” in the titles) and a pair of lovers, concludes the tape. This is primitive Chaplin, still very much steeped in the Keystone slapstick tradition of pratfalls and well placed kicks to the rear end. The Tramp an aggressively mischievous character who smokes incessantly, striking matches on the neck of poor bystanders and flicking ashes in everything from tipped hats to open mouths. The Chaplin magic comes through in the timing and the grace.
Faust (Kino Classics, Blu-ray+DVD), the final German production by director F.W. Murnau before he left for Hollywood, remains one of the most visually magnificent films of the silent era. The new Blu-ray reminds us just how beautiful, adventurous, and powerful it is after all these years.
Adapted from Goethe’s classic play by Carl Mayer (with uncredited rewrites by Thea von Harbou), it reimagines the modern myth of the idealistic scientist who signs a pact with the devil as a holy battle between good and evil. Faust (Gösta Ekman) becomes a kind of modern day Job tempted by Mephisto (Emil Jannings) in a wager with the Archangel (Werner Fuetterer, looking like a heavenly Siegfried with feathery wings), who is apparently unconcerned over the torment the victims are soon to endure just to win a bet with the Devil.
Faust has had a rocky reputation over the years. Murnau suffers from a pair of romantic leads (Ekman and Camilla Horn as Gretchen, Murnau’s answer to Lillian Gish) with no chemistry and little screen dynamism. Emil Jannings looks born to dress up as a demonic beast with leathery wings that could (and do) swallow a small village whole, but Murnau has a tendency to let him off the leash for comic relief; his actorly overindulgence gets awfully distracting.
Sherlock Holmes (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) – The 1916 Sherlock Holmes was not the first film based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective but it is by all accounts the first Holmes feature and in many ways it remains the most important Holmes film ever made. It’s an adaptation of the popular stage play written and produced by William Gillette, who drew his script from a collection of Holmes tales with the blessing of Doyle. Gillette toured England and the U.S. in the title role for years before hanging it up but revived the play one final time 1915. It was a smash on Broadway and Gillette took it on tour, ending up in Chicago where the Essanay Film Company struck a deal to bring the stage play to the big screen and bring Gillette’s signature performance before the cameras in a cast featuring both his roadshow actors and members of the Essanay stock company.
We’re not talking resurrected masterpiece here, mind you, but it is a fine piece of filmmaking and an entertaining feature from an era when features were still finding their form. More importantly, it is the sole film performance of William Gillette, a stage legend in his own right and the first definitive Sherlock Holmes, as conferred upon him by both audiences and the author Doyle himself. His interpretation not only informed the performances that followed but the screen mythology itself. Gillette elevated Moriarty (played in the film by French actor and Essanay company regular Ernest Maupain) from minor Doyle character to defining nemesis (and in some ways anticipated Lang’s Dr. Mabuse), gave Holmes his signature curved pipe, and added the term “elementary” to his repertoire. In other ways his version is unlike the Holmes of the page or later screen versions. He’s a cultivated patrician in elegant evening clothes and dressing robes before donning the signature deerstalker cap and familiar tools of the trade, he falls in love, and he even marries (with Doyle’s blessing).
Since the dawn of cinema, cameras have been taken around the world to capture unique and exotic sights previously available to audiences only in still photographs.
Motion picture pioneers the Lumiere brothers sent their cameras to get scenic shots of foreign landscapes and cultures, and rivals (such as Britain’s Mitchell and Kenyon) followed suit, creating programs that took audiences to faraway places. Mitchell and Kenyon narrated their presentations, turning the shows into events, while on the lecture circuit, explorers started using movie cameras to supplement their slide shows with moving picture footage.
These pre-documentary forays inspired filmmakers and explorers to take their cameras into more remote and inhospitable locations.
Herbert Ponting accompanied Captain Robert Scott on his 1911 expedition to the Antarctic with two moving picture cameras. Frank Hurley, the official photographer of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition, also brought a movie camera. Captain John Noel, gripped by fascination with the Himalayas, documented the third British ascent of Everest in 1924. Photographer and anthropologist Edward S. Curtis went to the coast of British Columbia to recreate the lost culture of the Pacific Northwest tribes. Robert Flaherty, still celebrated as the father of documentary filmmaking, took his cameras to the Arctic to capture the culture of the Inuit, and to Samoa to document South Seas life. And before they made KingKong, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack hauled their cameras through the mountains and plains of Iraq and the jungles of Thailand to explore the rigors of life in worlds far from our own.
Lon Chaney became a star for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) but it was the 1925 The Phantom of the Opera (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) that confirmed his stardom and his talent.
The first version of many versions of the Gaston Leroux novel is still considered the definitive, thanks to Chaney’s committed performance (right down to enduring painful make-up that he himself designed to give him a death’s head look and a horrifying rictus grin) and magnificent sets for the grand Paris Opera and the underground labyrinth of tunnels and canals and secret rooms. This lavishly executed production threatens to slip into hoary melodrama with a magnificent backdrop but for Chaney’s performance.
Chaney, however, creates both a monstrous and a tortured villain, part shunned mastermind, part proto-Frankenstein monster smitten with a young beauty His backstory is left blank, which allows the viewers to fill in their own from his aristocratic bearing, his maniacal pounding on a pipe organ in his underground dungeon lair and his obsessive pursuit of the comely young understudy Christine (Mary Philbin), whose stardom he engineers via secret coaching and threats to the opera company owners. Chaney is both tender and terrible, wooing Christine from behind a mask, a mystery lover who dedicates his heart and soul to her success, then turns vindictive when she spurns him.