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Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Though her works have largely been lost, Lois Weber made at least 138 films before 1940 — many of which addressed social issues like capital punishment, urban poverty and birth control.

Early movies were made of highly flammable nitrate, which is one reason many have not survived. In the case of the filmmaker Lois Weber, another reason might have to do with being a woman.

Howie Movshovitz reports at National Public Radio [NPR], “As Hollywood continues to struggle with the underrepresentation of women behind the camera, most people have forgotten that 100 years ago, one woman ruled.

“Her name was Lois Weber. Counting shorts and feature-length movies, she directed at least 138 films — all before 1940. She became the first American woman to direct a feature-length dramatic film with The Merchant of Venice in 1914.

” ‘In her day, she was considered one of the three great minds of the early film industry, alongside D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille,’ says Shelley Stamp, a film historian at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“Today, most of her works are virtually impossible to see. But two of her most important films have now been restored and released to theaters and on disc.

“Shelley Stamp wrote a book about Weber and the notes for the new DVDs. She says the filmmaker often took a different tack from her contemporaries.

” ‘She was a very vocal advocate for cinema’s ability to portray complex social issues in a popular narrative form,’ Stamp says. ‘She considered cinema what she called “a voiceless language.” And by that I think she meant cinema had an ability to convey ideas to anybody, regardless of their educational level, regardless of their command of English, right, at a period when there were many immigrants to the U.S. who did not speak English as a first language.’

“Weber was born in 1879 outside Pittsburgh to a religious middle-class family. She was a child prodigy pianist who spent two years playing organ and evangelizing around the city.

” ‘She started preaching on shop corners, and when she went to New York, she started working at these Salvation Army-type places to help people,’ Dennis Doros says. With his wife Amy Heller, Doros co-founded and runs Milestone Films, which is releasing the restored version of Weber’s movies. ‘She was never really a preacher, but she was always an activist for the poor.’ …

“Before she became a filmmaker, Weber left evangelizing to tour the country as a concert pianist — until one night a key broke and shattered her nerve to perform. She left the concert stage for the theater stage, and eventually directed her first short film in 1911.

“From early on, she advocated for complex roles for women and for serious engagement with social issues. According to Stamp, Weber made films about the fight to abolish capital punishment, about drug addiction, about urban poverty, about the campaign to legalize contraception.

“Weber took up the cause of young women going to work in her 1916 film Shoes, which has been released by Milestone with a new score. …

“The same year that Weber wrote and directed Shoes, she was entrusted with Universal Pictures’ anchor film, The Dumb Girl of Portici (dumb as in mute). It stars internationally famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova in a sweeping historical epic.”

More at NPR, here. I was sad to read this part: “Lois Weber died penniless in 1939. Friends paid for her funeral.”

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Photo: Everett Collection 
In the early 20th century, audiences crammed into theaters to see silent films accompanied by piano, organ, or orchestra. This film starred William S. Hart

Do you ever think about what an art it was to accompany a silent film? At the website Atlas Obscura, Jessica Leigh Hester has a great post about people who crave the experience today

“Sitting at a Steinway piano in near-darkness, Bernie Anderson flicks his eyes between the keys and a movie screen. Over his right shoulder, nearly all of the 203 seats in the Bruno Walter Auditorium on New York’s Upper West Side are full.

“These enthusiastic viewers have escaped the biting January wind for a screening of the ‘Silent Clowns’ film series. Anderson is set off in a corner of the stage, so as not to distract from the daring, hapless antics. His fingers fly and flutter, and give the cinematic shenanigans an extra dimension.

“He gamely tackles One Week, a 1920 short starring Buster Keaton, in which the master of physical comedy constructs a home from a do-it-yourself kit. It’s no spoiler to say that it doesn’t go well. The porch roof leans, and the windows are askew. When the house needs to be relocated, it gets lodged on some railroad tracks along the way. Anderson’s live melodies invigorate the charming foibles.

“The music is amiable when Keaton strolls with his new bride. When a storm spins Keaton’s sorry house around, Anderson’s playing evokes a vortex — swirling and insistent. The sound grows frenzied as a train finally reduces the slapdash home to splinters.

“The audience is devouring the century-old hijinks of the bill’s four comedic shorts. Laughter erupts regularly, gut-deep and contagious. ‘Oh nuts! Nuts!’ one man chortles when Laurel and Hardy tread, theatrically, on a heap of nails in The Finishing Touch. Other viewers can’t stop themselves from swapping corny puns as the gags pile up. ‘He got plastered,’ someone whispers to a friend as paint and glue cover a character’s face like meringue. …

“The phrase ‘silent film’ is, of course, a misnomer. Screenings of the 1920s were hardly quiet. The soundtrack for any given showing depended, in large part, on the setting. At deluxe movie palaces, films were often accompanied by entire symphony orchestras. …

“What they played varied by movie and musician. An orchestra conductor might rifle through a large library of sheet music to compile a patchwork score, [Scott Eyman, author of The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926–1930] notes.

“Some were dashed off quickly, [and] sounded predictably derivative or cheesy. Tawdrier examples relied on snippets of familiar tunes to do some heavy thematic lifting, such as walloping viewers with ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad’ when a train barreled past.

“As an alternative, a conductor or individual accompanist might rely on a cue sheet. … One for another Keaton film, Sherlock Jr., for instance, primes accompanists to stay tuned for the moments when a ‘man buys a box of candy,’ or ‘man with black mustache leaves house.’ The sheet recommends measures by Irving Berlin and ‘On the Mill Dam,’ a banjo tune that evokes galloping hooves. …

“Performances are similarly variable today, depending on the accompanist and instrument of choice. ‘I try to be as authentic as possible,’ Anderson says. But there’s a lot of debate about what that should sound like.

“If a score or cue sheet for a given film survive, Anderson tries to track them down. Some never existed, others have been lost to time and neglect, and still more, he has found, just aren’t very compelling. [Anderson says,] ‘Whatever’s there, I try to use.’ ”

Atlas Obscura, here, goes into a lot of additional detail, if you are intrigued. You can also see an impressive pipe organ which, along with a 110-piece orchestra, used to accompany movies at the Roxy Theatre. Wouldn’t you love to go to one of these contemporary reenactments?

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Got to share this movie: Le Havre (in French with subtitles).

Lately, nearly all the movies we see are on Netflix. Our taste seems to run to animation, documentaries, and foreign films. Not exclusively, but in general.

Last night we watched an odd, wistful comedy about an old guy in Le Havre,
France, who makes up his mind to help a boy whose family is arrested after being discovered in a packing crate near the harbor, on route from Africa to London.

Every shot in the film was like a painting, every gesture true. The characters were good-hearted, down-and-out types in the roughneck port, where many undocumented immigrants come looking for work. There they find squatter camps, deportation, kindness, hostility, drugs, poverty, crime, and sometimes a living.

The dialogue in the bar scenes reminded me of Mike Leigh films, the ones where he has his actors ad-lib their lines. It was just so funny and believable. And the “trendy” charity fundraiser the old guy arranges with the graying rock band has to be seen to be believed.

The “2011 comedy-drama film written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki, starring André Wilms, Kati Outinen, Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Blondin Miguel. It tells the story of a shoeshiner who tries to save an immigrant child in the French port city Le Havre. The film was produced by Kaurismäki’s Finnish company Sputnik …

“The film premiered in competition at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where it received the FIPRESCI Prize. Kaurismäki envisions it as the first installment in a trilogy about life in port cities. His ambition is to make follow-ups set in Spain and Germany, shot in the local languages.”

More at Wikipedia, here.

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Gene Sharp (founder of the Albert Einstein Institution and the go-to guy on nonviolent revolution) is proof that one and one and 50 make a million. Sharp is one man, but his writings have had a powerful influence on many of the players in the 2011 Arab Spring and democracy movements elsewhere.

Today I went with Jane’s family to see a movie about Sharp at the Boston Film Festival. (Jane’s cousin, Ruaridh Arrow, directed it.) It’s a remarkable film. There were interviews with organizers of nonviolent change in Serbia, Ukraine, Egypt, Syria, and beyond. The documentary was interspersed with news footage and video from recent uprisings around the world. A key message is that change takes strategic planning (you can’t wing it) and is a kind of armed resistance, only people are armed with ideas for undermining the pillars that support an oppressive regime. In addition to conducting research on the subject of nonviolence, Sharp has offered a list of 198 techniques that effect change.

After a standing ovation, a frail Gene Sharp, 83, his assistant, Jamila Raqib, and nonviolent-change trainer Col. Robert Helvey, retired, came up on the stage with the director and took audience questions. Raqib was asked about the funding for the Albert Einstein Institution, which operates out of a small space in East Boston. She said that likely funders back off because the ideas do relate to overthrowing a government. The institution is struggling.

I wish you could have been there to hear a young woman stand up and say that she is Egyptian and took  part in the January uprising. She said the overthrow of the government was easy but the rebuilding is hard. She wanted to know if any studies had been done comparing the transitions to democracy of other uprisings. When Sharp said that studies had yet to be done, I couldn’t help thinking what a good use of new funding such research might be. The film itself was funded by large and small donations from around the world through Kickstarter, which I blogged about here. Perhaps it can kickstart nonviolent change elsewhere.

Update: Gene Sharp died at his home in East Boston on January 28, 2018. He was 90.

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