Flatpack Festival and Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery are running a marvellous exhibition until 30th October 2022: Wonderland tells stories of filmgoing and cinema culture in Birmingham. It begins with the earliest days of cinematic experimentation, including a visit from Eadweard Muybridge to demonstrate his moving images, through the glory days of the picture palaces in the 1930s and 40s, the influence of Asian and Caribbean immigration, and the slump of the 1980s, to where we are today, with a combination of multiplexes and more specialised venues, including, of course, the Electric, which continues to proudly boast the title of the UK’s oldest working cinema.
It’s a densely packed exhibition, full of elegantly and concisely organised information, focusing not only on places and eras but also people: individual attention is given to notable figures such as Iris Barry, the UK’s first female film critic, Waller Jeffs, who popularised cinema in the 1900s with his annual seasons at the Curzon Hall and travelling show, and Oscar Deutsch, the Balsall Heath-born creator of the Odeon brand, the first cinema of which opened in Perry Barr in 1930.
Wonderland: Birmingham’s Cinema Stories is free to visit at BMAG until October 30th, and it’s a must-see for anyone interested in filmgoing in Birmingham. The history it describes is cultural, technological, social and economic, and it’s beautifully curated and designed to just that. It’s also got a big interactive map in the middle where you can look for your house and see the five cinemas that used to be on your road back in 1940. Don’t miss it.
Composer and musician Neil Brand brings a live show to the Electric Cinema as part of Flatpack Festival – Neil Brand Presents Laurel and Hardy is touring around the country, giving audiences a taste of Stan and Ollie’s work before they were paired together, and showing us what their double act was like before the development of sound cinema. The show culminates in screenings of two of their silent shorts, Big Business and Liberty, accompanied on the piano, of course, by Neil.
It’s a great introduction to both Laurel and Hardy and silent comedy in general, which thrives when accompanied live. Neil’s own passion for the duo, whose films he grew up with, is evident, describing their appeal to him and showing a clip of Stan, a drama he wrote about Stan visiting Ollie on his deathbed. He introduces us to the term “reciprocal destruction”, a term that brilliantly distills something you immediately realise you associate with both Laurel and Hardy and the cartoons their comedy inspired: when someone attacks an opponent, the assailant must then wait for the victim to attack them in return, only then returning fire, each volley increasing in aggression and destructive power, until chaos reigns. And although we take issue with one of the chosen clips, of an early Stan Laurel film that includes a gay stereotype that is used uncritically here to earn laughs, it’s a blip in an accomplished, well-constructed and entertaining show that we recommend you see.
I wish I’d been able to go to more events at the 10th edition of Flatpack. But I did manage quite a few: the excellent exhibition of the Projection Project at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s beautiful Gas Hall; a bittersweet screening of Dreyer’s Vampyr at the Adrian Boult Hall at the Birmingham Conservatoire (sweet due to the greatness of the film and the superb new score played live by its composers — Stephen Horne and Minima; and bitter due to it probably being the last event hosted in the hall before the imminent demolition of the Birmingham Conservatoire); I saw Les Trucs’s performance of their score for Murnau’sThe Last Laugh at the Lyttleton Theatre in the late-Victorian marvel that houses The Birmingham and Midland Institute; all three volumes of Miguel Gomes’ extraordinary Arabian Nights at the Midlands Arts Centre; and the superb finale that was Murnau’s Faust with a great new score by Matt Eton and Gareth Jones performed at the lovely old Birmingham Rep Theatre, where Olivier and other English theatrical greats first learned their trade in rep. I don’t think a working person with commitments could have gone to many more events in what was only a period of five days.
What I love and admire about Flatpack this year is partly what I’ve praised it for in the past. In 2013, I wrote ‘I want to pause here for a moment to praise Ian Francis and Flatpack because they are excellent at doing all the things film festivals are expected to do: put together an excellent programme; discover and nurture new talent, introduce new works to audiences; create a space for artists to meet and exchange ideas; create new audiences for new, different and difficult types of works; draw people from other localities at home and abroad into the city for the event, generate press, etc. But they are also superb at doing what film festivals sometimes see as beneath their remit and which should by rights be fundamental to it: to contribute to and enrich the cultural life of the city’.
On the evidence of just the few events I was able to go to, Flatpack involved a wide range of city spaces and institutions (The Birmingham Museum and Gallery, the Birmingham Conservatoire, The Birmingham and Midlands Institue, the Midlands Arts Centre, the Old Rep), thus not only involving those institutions but exposing new audiences to the beauty of those spaces and the facilities that those institutions offer. They commissioned new work and involved other local organisms (e.g. The Feeney Trust) in that commissioning, whilst also looking outward and involving bodies like The Goethe Institute in an exchange with Frankfurt Lichter Filmfest in bringing in Les Trucs for The Last Laugh. And the remit they’ve chosen is not only to introduce audiences to a range of new work but also a scholarly and pedagogical one of introducing new audiences to the great works of the past in exciting new ways. It’s a superb festival that Birmingham is very lucky to have.
My only criticism, a selfish one, is that rather than growing in size over a short space of time (i.e. packing in as much as possible across the city over the space of five days), I wish they’d split up part of their programming, do a festival of silent cinema with new scores say in the Autumn, The Optical Sound element in the Spring and so on. I would certainly go to more if it were more spread out. However, it might be best to not tempt fate, value what we now have in Birmingham, and let someone else take up the challenge of creating new but equally exciting and enriching festivals of culture at other times of the year.
F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), screened to a live score by Alcyona Mick at The Arena venue of the Midlands Arts Centre, made for a magical and very English Summer evening on the 28th of June, 2013. People gathered on this outdoor yet intimate performance space, obviously modeled on a miniature Roman arena but reminding me a little of the small ‘plaza de toros’ of the village I’m from in Spain, with seating built into the space itself out of rock and cement: basic, functional, social. There were grandparents, families, kids running around, groups of friends. A Murnau film had drawn a lot expected film types and some queer folk; the jazz trio, quite a lot of music lovers; everyone at ease with each other. The forecast had dissuaded the mob but there was still a good crowd. There was indeed a gentle drizzle that accompanied the screening, seeming to fall or not, in weightier and lighter drops, as the mood took it; umbrellas came up, went down, came back up again. But the film so enraptured the audience that no one left.
Ian Francis, founder of Flatpack, was on hand to introduce the screening, which he did with a soft voice and with information so humbly presented one might not easily notice how clever it was, and how well thought-through various elements of this event had been put together. He told us that we were watching a copy of Sunrise which had recently been discovered in an archive in the Czech Republic; that at 79 minutes it is considerably shorter than the official 97 minute version; that it was nonetheless of great interest because it was edited differently, not only to make it shorter, but to allow for shots not included in the original; that the original version had had a Fox Movietone sound-on-film soundtrack, but that this 79 minute version had no official score, thus handing Flatpack and Birmingham Jazz an opportunity in 2010 to commission a score from Alcyona Mick; that this lovely score had been performed once before at a special screening in St. Martin’s Church and here it was being performed again, for us, by Alcyona Mick on piano, Calina DeLa Mare on violin and Jon Wygens on guitars.
I want to pause here for a moment to praise Ian Francis and Flatpack because they are excellent at doing all the things film festivals are expected to do: put together an excellent programme; discover and nurture new talent, introduce new works to audiences; create a space for artists to meet and exchange ideas; create new audiences for new, different and difficult types of works; draw people from other localities at home and abroad into the city for the event, generate press, etc. But they are also superb at doing what film festivals sometimes see as beneath their remit and which should by rights be fundamental to it: to contribute to and enrich the cultural life of the city, and not only on the dates the festival is scheduled for.
This screening of Sunrise was an example of the multitude of ways Flatpack is contributing to Birmingham’s cultural life and indeed simply making of Birmingham a more pleasant place to live in. It’s an instance of Flatpack being involved not only in programming, distributing, publicizing, exhibiting etc. but of commissioning and, furthermore, from the moment of commissioning to the screening I saw, of collaborating with at least three other city institutions (Birmingham Jazz, The Midlands Arts Centre, St. Martin’s Chruch); of introducing jazz fans to film, film fans to jazz, young audiences to Silent Cinema, audiences of all ages to one of the great screen classics and in a new and interesting version. The archival, the historic, the cultural and the social all brought together for our attention and pleasure at this event.
Flatpack has introduced me to new parts of the city, places that after living here for ten years I’d never actually been to (I’d been to the MAC but not to the Arena, I’d seen St. Martin’s Church, but only from the outside, I’d never been to the Ladywood Broadway Cinemas). Thus it wasn’t just that Flatpack is introducing Birmingham to festivalgoers arriving for the first time in the city but also a way of re-introducing Brummies into the riches Birmingham has to offer, amongst which Flatpack, both as conduit and as a destination in itself, must be counted and treasured.
As the sun went down and the film began, as we saw George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor try to rediscover what they’d once loved about each other, as the plastic macs went on and the umbrellas up, as the band played, my mind turned to humans making magic. Sunrise is the result of Murnau’s orchestration of a whole army of people arranging particular imprints of light on celluloid, and that now once more needed the absence of light and then more light to bring it to life. The music, the physical effort, breath even, evident in the bending of every note, of the choice of particular rhythms by a group of people making sound out of notations; sounds that surrounded these very beautiful images and connected them to us in a newly designed way; then the event itself, the result of a combination of state (funding for MAC), church (the original site for the first screening in Birmingham), arts organisations (Flatpack, Birmingham Jazz) and the whole team of volunteers who contribute to Flatpack.
The Sub-title of Sunrise is ‘A Tale of Two Humans’. This screening was the result of many humans coming together over time (at least 80 years), space (Hollywood To Birmingham), across many different organization, both state-funded and community-led, professional and volunteer, to create something beautiful. At the end of the screening, when the musicians seem both shy and delighted by the mad applause that accompanied their efforts, I felt gratitude to everyone involved for having taken the trouble. It does take an army. It was worth it. I felt very lucky to be there and to have benefitted from everyone’s efforts. They deserved even more applause than they got.