Tag Archives: silent film

Films as Urban Preservation

Perusing through the Melbourne Curious blog alerted me to the fact that Australian Screen have some amazing historical footage of my home city, Melbourne, available for viewing and download. It got me thinking again about the role that films play in preserving a record of our built environment.

Before I expand on those thoughts, here’s a sample of the stuff they have. There’s extracts from Marvellous Melbourne: Queen City of the South, a film from 1910 by Charles Cozens Spencer. It gives a great sense of the feel of Melbourne’s streets at that time.

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The Coolest Movie News Since… Ever?

You’ve probably seen this already, since it’s one of those rare pieces of news about film restoration that was so earth-shattering it made the mainstream media: a near-complete version of Metropolis has turned up. Ain’t It Cool have images here.

I love Metropolis: I’m a fan of city movies, and silent movies, and big epic special effects movies, and science fiction movies, so it really does have everything for me. Everything except, of course, about a quarter of its footage: the previous best-available version used intertitles to give a sense of what was missing. That DVD was released by Kino overseas, and seems to be the basis of the version released by Madman in Australia. Kino were already planning a re-release (with a Blu-Ray version) in 2009; that has been hastily revised to include the rediscovered footage. Obviously the new footage is likely to be in poor shape, visually, but its historical importance is extraordinary.

What could possibly be next: the ten hour version of Greed?

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Dr Plonk (Rolf de Heer, 2007)

Rolf de Heer’s new film, Dr Plonk, is built on a brave and irresistible premise. De Heer has made a real, honest-to-God silent movie, evoking about as closely as possible the feel of a silent comedy from the 1920s. The only remotely similar project I can think of is Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie, from 1976, but that film did things by halves: shooting in colour and (typically for Brooks) showing only the vaguest sympathy for the genre he was supposedly channelling. De Heer, by contrast, brings to Dr Plonk a serious filmmaker’s urging to get the little things right: the film is shot in black and white using hand-cranked cameras; the camera moves only occasionally, and is shaky when it does; there are intertitles, written with a good ear (eye?) for the style of period titles; and there’s even a slight variability in the brightness of the film that matches that seen in silent prints. The illusion is remarkable, and in the early passages, before the time-travel plot kicks in and the eponymous doctor travels o the present day, there’s really little other than the familiar face of Magda Szubanski to give this away as a contemporary production. At that level, it’s a remarkable achievement, and as a fan of silent films I really, really wanted to enjoy Dr Plonk more than I did. Unfortunately, de Heer’s film also shows up the difficulties of reviving what is basically a dead form.

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Stop Giggling, Zeffirelli

This says a lot about me: the deaths of Michaelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman last week sent me scrambling for an episode of The Goodies. Specifically, I wanted to check if either had received a mention in Tim Brooke-Taylor’s dressing down of the mid-seventies art-film industry in the episode “Movies,” from 1975. Turned out neither had (I guess because they peaked earlier), but it’s still a great clip:

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What I Want for Christmas Next Year

In a not very timely post, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the films that I wish were available on DVD here in Australia but aren’t, and express the (belated) Christmas wish that we might see these before next year.

Generally I think that we’re actually pretty well off in this country, even given the lesser release schedules we get compared to the US. There are a couple of animation collections that I’m pretty much resigned to never seeing (further waves of Disney Treasures, for example), but generally it seems most of the things we want we eventually get. This is particularly the case with smaller distributors (notably Madman) getting up more steam and increasingly filling the niche that outfits like Criterion do in the US. (In fact, I watched their version of Rififi the other day, and my hunch is it is a port of the Criterion version).

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Stone Face

The General (Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman, 1927)

If you’re going to introduce somebody to silent films – and what a good, true friend that would make you – then there is no better place to start than with the works of Buster Keaton. While Charlie Chaplin was always much more admired in his lifetime, and managed a vastly more successful career after the introduction of sound, Keaton’s work has probably aged better. He’s more cinematic, less sentimental, and simply more fun. Chaplin was considered at the time the pre-eminent comic artist of silent film, but as much as I like his work, to modern audiences I think he is too obviously striving for greatness. Looking back, now that neither has a point to prove – we take it as a given that both were seminal film artists – Keaton’s lack of pretension is more appealing. The General isn’t quite his best work (Sherlock Junior is even better) but it is the best of his films available on DVD in this country.

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