Five essential silent films to check out
Hippfest director Alison Strauss picks out some of her favourite silent films
Silent films didn't die out with the advent of talkies. Alison Strauss, director of Hippodrome Silent Film Festival, picks five more recent favourites.
For seven years now, Bo'ness's annual Hippodrome Silent Film Festival has been introducing new audiences to lost gems from the early days of cinema. Aside from dipping a toe in the water in 2011, when the global success of The Artist – the awards-sweeping French romantic comedy about the shifting fortunes of a silent movie star, his protégé, and his adorable dog – made it seem almost churlish not to include this latter-day silent, HippFest has hitherto focussed on films made before the era of synchronised sound. That will change this month when HippFest screens Together, a fascinating curiosity from 1956 starring a young Eduardo Paolozzi – later to become an iconic artist himself – in his only acting role as a deaf dock worker, a performance for which he modelled himself on Marlon Brando. The HippFest screening is accompanied by a brand new score by Raymond Macdonald and Christian Ferlaino.
The unexpected ubiquity of The Artist was an exasperating turn of events for Pablo Berger, director of this 'love letter to European silent cinema'. When The Artist became an out of the blue smash hit at Cannes in 2011, Berger later recalled, he was working on the storyboards for Blancanieves and 'almost threw my phone against the wall. The high concept was gone.'
If you missed it at the time, Blancanieves merits another look. It's a daring reinvention of Snow White, in which Snow White is a gifted bullfighter, like her father before her, and the travelling band of dwarfs who discover her in the woods. Its range of influences – not just silent cinema, but Alfred Hitchcock and Pedro Almodovar – won it high praise from critics, and prizes at the San Sebastian International Film Festival and Goya Awards, even if it missed out on being shortlisted for the Oscars.
Samuel Beckett's only short film was, in the playwright's view, 'an interesting failure', and has divided film and theatre critics ever since. In silent cinema terms, though, it's another fascinating curiosity, in large part because it starred an iconic figure in silent film, Buster Keaton, shortly before his death (Beckett had previously asked Keaton to star in Waiting for Godot, but the actor turned him down). Opening with an extreme close-up of a human eye, the film is, in Beckett's words, about how 'the perceiver desires like mad to perceive and the perceived tries desperately to hide', as a camera pursues the film's protagonist, O, out of a Brooklyn street, up a staircase, and into a room where it finally confronts him face to face in a rocking chair. Keaton speaks the only word of the film's dialogue: 'Shhh.'
Le Ballon Rouge (1956)
Released the same year as Together, Le Ballon Rouge (The Red Balloon) is one of the most beautiful children's films ever made. Set in Paris, it follows a young boy (played by the son of writer-director Albert Lamorisse) as he discovers and befriends a balloon that has magically come alive. The film, and especially its exhilarating ending, has been frequently homaged – most notably in Up, Pixar's 2009 adventure comedy about a pensioner who uses hundreds of balloons to fly his house to South America. Pixar, of course, had shortly before paid extended homage to silent cinema in their 2008 film WALL-E, starring a loveable, non-verbal robot designed after repeating viewings of films by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.
The Red Turtle (2016)
Demonstrating that silent cinema is alive and well in 2017, Dutch-British animator Michael Dudok's fantasy adventure – co-produced by Studio Ghibli – was nominated for best animated feature film at the Oscars this year. A man lost in a storm wakes up on a deserted island, where he finds that all his attempts to escape are thwarted by a giant turtle. To say much more about the turtle would spoil the film's various gentle twists and revelations; suffice to say that what the film has to say about humanity, and nature, shows how cinema can still address the most contemporary and urgent of themes without recourse to dialogue. It is also a striking blend of European and Japanese artistry, and of old and new technology, with shots that seamlessly blend hand-drawn animation and CGI.
Together, with by a new live score by Raymond Macdonald and Christian Ferlaino, screens at the Hippodrome, Bo'ness, on Thursday 23 March, as part of the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival. The Red Turtle is on selected release from Fri 26 May.