This evening saw that rarest of treats for a silent movie fan, the screening of a new silent film. London Symphony is a love letter of film, both to the city of London and to that beautiful sub-genre of silent films; the city symphony.
From the pristine, gorgeous black and white photography, through the glorious art deco film poster to the bombastic and tender score, this was a film that knows and loves its genre. It’s very much a labour of love film, having been crowd-funded, and having a central creative team that had been at university together and then worked together on short films. (It was originally envisioned as a six-month project but expanded out into a four-year epic.) It’s a film that seeks to document its city subject in the early part of the 21st century in the same way that films like Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis and Man with a Movie Camera did for their own cities respectively in the early part of the 20th century. While stylistically, it arguably owes more to formalism than to the avant-garde sensibilities of those films, it still manages to occupy that middle ground where documentary meets art film, and therefore I feel that it succeeds in its mission. Revealing the machine that is London, along with its all too human flawed and grubby heart, and making it beautiful not despite that but rather because of that.
I love films that hold a deep sense of place, that are embedded with a deep affection for their settings in all their glories and their grubbiness. From the Cat’s Eye view of Istanbul in Kedi to the back streets of Kowloon in Chungking Express, I love seeing cities away from the stock footage skylines and familiar vistas. This film was like the kind of tour of a city you get from a friend who lives there rather than the one your get from a tour guide. Where the big tourist attractions are incidental and the focus is instead on their favourite parks and markets, with a liberal sprinkling of odd views and favourite bits of obscure architecture.
As an additional added pleasure the film was followed by a Q&A session with the director Alex Barrett, who is currently touring the film round the country, answering questions both from the audience and from Eden Court’s film programmer Paul Taylor. I think it’s a film that benefits from having added context, whether that’s getting an introduction to the genre of city symphony films or as an opportunity to geek out about the genre with the director.
It was also, more than anything, that most unusual of films for me, one that left me feeling inspired and wanting to make my own film in that genre.