The Unusual Inventions of Henry Cavendish
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
When it comes to Le Giornate Del Cinema Muto it’s very much a second home too many of us at South West Silents. Many of us have been going for nearly ten years (some even longer), but it has always been a major highlight of the film festival calendar.
Just in case you don’t know, the Giornate has been (and still is) for the past 31 years one of key film festivals in the whole world when it comes to the history of early cinema. And while the festival looks into the classic retrospect’s and celebrates brand new restorations of all kind of different silent films from around the world, on occasions, the festival treats us to a selection of 21st Century Silent Films.
And one of the key films which many of us remember was The Unusual Inventions of Henry Cavendish (2005) which was first screened in 2005. Directed by Andrew Legge and starring Hugh O’Conor, Henry Cavendish was one of the real great surprises of the festival that year (the surprises are always the best when it comes to film festivals).
So we are thrilled to return to the Invention of Henry Cavendish by not only posting the entire film on the video link below; but to also present the Collegium paper in which Andrew wrote just after the film was screened at the 2005 Giornate.
Those not in the know, every year the Giornate offers 12 places to applicants who should preferably be under 30 years of age and still, in the broadest sense, involved in the study of cinema.
The aim of the Collegium is to excite a new generation in the idea of cinema history and heritage, and to infiltrate these newcomers into the very special community that has evolved around the Giornate during its thirty years. We want the participants in the Collegium to feel themselves members of that community, not to be awed and intimidated by the age, experience, authority or scholarship of the people they meet in Pordenone.
Anyways, back to the main topic here! As mentioned, both the Giornate and Andrew have kindly allowed us to post not only The Unusual Inventions of Henry Cavendish but Andrew’s Collegium paper to bring around a real understanding of not only what Andrew had originally planned for the film, but his own thoughts on ‘Pastiche, Parody and Homage’. As well as his thoughts to the reaction after the filming screening.
Once again, our thanks to Film Director Andrew Legge and Le Giornate Del Cinema Muto for letting us share the world of Henry Cavendish with all of you!
Pastiche, Parody or Homage? Silent Film for the 21st century by Andrew Legge.
“Pastiche” is an adjective commonly used by film critics when describing films that they deem unoriginal and full of references to other films. The word is usually used in a derogatory manner. For example, in the past, the likes of Stephen Spielberg and Tim Burton have had their work denigrated as “pastiche”. Spielberg’s Munich was described as a “James Bond pastiche” by one film critic. This is because much of their work contains references to 1950s and 1960s TV movies.
On the other hand films such as Pulp Fiction which is famously filled with movie allusions and scenes lifted from other films was celebrated by the critics as “post modern” and Quentin Tarantino was hailed as the most outstanding film director of the 1990s. Many of Woody Allen’s films have references to the films of Allen’s favourite director Ingram Bergman, but Allen is never labelled a director of “pastiche”. Some of the films of Joel and Ethan Coen such as The Hudsucker Proxy been given another label – “homage”. This essay is a personal attempt to examine these distinctions established by critics, drawing on my own somewhat limited experience as a maker of films, particularly in attempting to adapt the feeling and aesthetic of silent cinema to the 21st century.
When I attended Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Sacile October 2005 as a member of the collegium I was fortunate also to have a short film that I had made earlier that year showing in the festival. The film, entitled The Unusual Inventions of Henry Cavendish, was made as a silent film using only a specially written musical score as its sound track.
The response generated by the film both at Sacile and other film festivals was very positive, primarily I suspect because the film sets out to entertain and (I hope and believe) succeeds in doing this. Some people at Sacile were curious to know why someone in his twenties from Ireland would go off and make a silent film. Discussing the film with people in Sacile and also reading the response of some Irish film critics who saw the film at the Cork Film Festival, was interesting. The response from people at Sacile was very positive. People were curious not only as to why I made the film, but also about certain styles and techniques I had used.
However back home Michael Dwyer wrote about Henry Cavendish in The Irish Times calling it “a witty pastiche” while his colleague Donald Clarke, in the same newspaper, described the film as “an ingenious silent film parody”. Now while both critics obviously liked the film the use of the words “parody” and “pastiche” for me brought a negative element into the criticism. Let’s define the word “pastiche”.
Pastiche n. 1. a melody, esp. a picture or a musical composition, made up from or imitating various sources. 2. a literary or other work of art composed in the style of a well known author And even worse: Parody n.1 a humorous exaggerated imitation of an author, literary work, style etc. 2 a feeble imitation; a travesty.
Obviously the critics used such words to describe the film because it was made very consciously in a genre 75 years out of date. They therefore saw the film as purely derivative. But how can film or any piece of art not be derivative? The pioneers of cinema had no cinema tradition to draw on. So they often turned to the theatre as reference, as their work often shows. A majority of fiction films up the early 1900s take the form of one take of a couple of characters acting out on a stage. The early film-makers also drew on literature. D.W. Griffith is said to have got his idea of intercutting different subplots in The Birth of a Nation from reading Charles Dickens. All the film makers after him looked to Griffith. Murnau used beautiful tracking shots in Sunrise and so did everyone after him (with the exception of a few years in the late 1920s when they invented sound films and had to lock the camera in an immoveable blimp.) After Citizen Kane everyone started experimenting with crazy angles, wide angle lenses and infinite depth of field. And so it still goes. Filmmakers today are lucky to draw their inspiration from 100 years of cinema history. It would be absurd to pretend that filmmakers don’t derive at least some of their ideas and inspiration from other films. So if all films are to an extent derivative, what is the dividing line where derivation becomes parody or pastiche?
Films can of course be pure and deliberate parody or pastiche. I’ve seen loads – most commonly done as bad TV commercials. But I would argue that The Unusual Inventions of Henry Cavendish is not parody or pastiche. Though it is very intentionally made in the style of a silent film, the intention was always to make it with respect to silent films not in any way to make fun out of them. I would go even further and say that those parodies on silent films one often sees are made by people who have seen very few actual silent films and probably dislike the genre. I on the contrary was grateful to use the excellent tools passed on to me by the makers of silent cinema.
When I sat down with the main actor for my film, Hugh O’Conor, to discuss acting style it became very clear to us both that the only way he could pull off the performance was to play the role with complete seriousness, as an actor who had to express himself within the constraints of the genre (black and white lighting, no dialogue). And that was how he treated it. I think if he had mimicked people’s perception of silent film actors by flailing his arms in the air, contorting his face and throwing his body violently around we could justifiably been accused of making a parody. Again we were careful how we composed the music. The composer while very much referencing both 19th century romantic music and early 20th century musical styles, was concerned that his own music show total respect to his influences.
Then we turn to the critics’ use of the term “homage”. This adjective is generally used much more positively.
Homage: 1. acknowledge of superiority, dutiful reference. 2. hist. Formal public acknowledgement of feudal allegiance.
It is generally used where the references within the work are used very deliberately. Thus some of the work of Joel and Ethan Coen has been described as “homage”. The Hudsucker Proxy is a comedy set in a corporation building in the 1950s. Extremely stylized, it makes very successful use of many references to earlier cinema – most evidently the films of Frank Capra. It is in no way parody: watching the film, it is obvious that the Coen brothers love the films to which they are alluding, and do it with great affection and respect. They are acknowledging their allegiance to the original film maker.
This perhaps is what makes the difference between a film as homage and a film as parody. The maker of a homage demonstrates love for the original. The maker of a parody/ pastiche may show little understanding and perhaps even contempt.
I would like to think that when I made The Unusual Inventions of Henry Cavendish I did it to express my love for silent cinema and its makers. I took note of the criticisms of Professor Tom Gunning, who pointed out that my film “used too many modern techniques in the cinematography.” “Silent framing rarely moves casually (never is hand held and rarely reframes). When it moves, it is very powerful. I may be wrong, but I found your framing more modern and casual, not the heavy frame of silent cinema.” I must of course absolutely agree with him. My film is full of shots that are entirely modern in style. Though his analysis is absolutely correct, I would suggest that in other respects Professor Gunning is slightly missing the point. He is actually looking for pastiche, and I had not given it to him.
When I made The Unusual Inventions of Henry Cavendish I was not trying to make a film completely in the style of the silent films of the 1920s. I was drawing inspiration from them and ‘borrowing’ a lot of ideas and techniques; but I equally ‘borrowed’ ideas from many of my favourite modern films – E.T. and Back to the Future to name but two. I wanted to acknowledge some of my favourite filmmakers whilst hoping to create something new.