Saturday, 7 March 2009


Just got home from a showing of Alla Nazimova's Salome at BFI Southbank as part of the Birds Eye View Festival. Well, that's not something you see every day. A 1920s silent film based on an Oscar Wilde play with costumes inspired by Aubrey Beardsley and a beautiful, feared young woman (played by a 40-something 'lesbian Hollywood icon') dancing about in a crazed way asking for a head on a plate. PLUS Bishi and band live, playing a specially composed score with singing and all kinds of instruments, from a keyboard that sounded like a cinema organ to sitars. Or something like sitars. What do i know? (Although the wonders of YouTube mean that, like half a million others, i can watch Ravi Shankar showing George Harrison how to play sitar.)
The whole experience was extraordinary. The film is a camp, stylised, fantastical spectacle while the music was stirring, at times hectic, at times haunting. Bishi herself has an amazing presence and her final sashay across the stage was a jollier ending to the evening than Salome's ritualised spearing by soldiers. A good time was had by all - except for an older gent who was in a fury because Bishi was blocking his view of the screen. 'We didn't come to see you!' he shouted at her at the end, which wasn't all that gentlemanly.

Friday, 6 March 2009

The coming of sound

I'm researching the end of the silent era in British cinema. Last week I went on a tour of the archive at the National Media Museum in Bradford, where they run a free tour most lunchtimes.

The curator showed us a lot of fascinating materials but everyone seemed to get more excited when we went in this room full of large equipment. He kindly pointed out, for my benefit, this camera from the early years of sound. Because the cameras were noisy, the moving parts were enclosed in 'blimps' as you can see here. The blimp would have been pulled down during use.

I reckon this is stage two of development. In stage one, the cameraman and the camera were in a sweaty booth and couldn't move. It made for some pretty static films for a while. Don't ask me how long... haven't got the timeline down pat yet.