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The Films of 1922 and Kevin Jackson James Harrison

James Harrison

Written by James Harrison

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Modernism 1922, a new project this year, explores the worlds of film, literature, music, politics and more 100 years ago. The project is run as a tribute to Kevin Jackson, author of Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism and All That Jazz. Here, James Harrison writes about Jackson, his book and the project it inspired.

In April 2016 I approached Kevin Jackson about the possibility of having a year-long film season in 2022 set around the silent films of 1922. As always, I was being rather premature about the planning. South West Silents hadn’t even celebrated its first birthday and yet here I was trying to plan for something which wouldn’t take place for another six years.

I revisited Constellation of Genius many times that year. After considering the idea for a while, I plucked up the courage to ask Kevin if he might be interested in this season. He was more than happy about the idea of screening the films (‘Hopefully a few more copies of the book would’ve sold by then,’ he said), but, understandably and politely, he told me to go away and not to bother him until nearer the time.

I continued to pester Kevin about the planned season for another five years. And it wasn’t just about Constellation of Genius; I would write to him about things he was working on (Kevin wrote many fine books and was an excellent critic) or my own writing. My love of his Humphrey Jennings biography would always be mentioned in passing, usually followed up with me asking him if there was another film-related biography being planned. ‘Writing film books never made anyone any money so I can’t be sure,’ Kevin would reply.  

Skip to 2019, and South West Silents had grown, as had my initial 1922/2022 idea. The plan now was not only to look at the films from 1922, but to start with 1920 in 2020 and continue until 1929 in 2029 (or maybe 1930/2030). We had an entire decade to explore every aspect of filmmaking at the height of cinema during the silent era. ‘Love the idea. But get back to me after you’ve almost finished 2020,’ Kevin said.

Then the pandemic hit. Many of our plans for film screenings and discussions about the films of 1920 and 1921 disappeared. We were able to get the odd screening with live music out but having guests introducing films or panel discussions afterwards had to be abandoned. But there was always hope that we would be able to carry on and plan for the later part of 2021 and then 2022, so we continued working.

Making a film list for a season is always interesting. You start by jotting down titles, names of directors, actors, cinematographers, production designers, even countries. Then you mark the most popular titles and those which are hardly known and begin to mix them all up a little. Well, that’s what I do anyway. Then, you have another separate list – this one is your ‘almost’ final selection. Then the crossing out begins. You begin to add the odd side note about which company has the best restoration, which films have been restored poorly or have not been restored at all. You wonder how easy it will be to clear the rights: while some silent films could be out of copyright, the restorations of those films are still in copyright.

After a couple of weeks of crossing out and speaking to film distribution companies and archives, I had a general idea of what would be available and what would be harder to get. In the end, I had a good enough list of between ten and 15 titles which I knew would definitely work for this year. There would be a few minor changes, with possible films being dropped along the way, but in essence, the line-up was there.

With the first draft of the list almost finished, I was about to forward the information to Kevin for his thoughts when I received a message saying that he had suddenly passed away on 10 May 2021. For a few days I found it hard to decide where I should go with this. The screenings should go ahead but with Kevin no longer with us there was a massive void, and I couldn’t be sure if the selection was right. Kevin would have made the final choices and I still feel sad that we didn’t sit down and discuss each single film (over a few bottles of red, I should add).

But I still had Kevin’s initial list and comments found within Constellation of Genius. I’m not going to copy Kevin’s film list here – buy a copy of the book: it’s an excellent read and the films are on pages 95-96 – but I am happy to say that the list of screenings planned for the rest of 2022 very much works with what Kevin had written.

If you have ever read Constellation of Genius, or any of Kevin’s film books, you will know how much he enjoyed cinema. I hope the line-up of screenings which I have been able to put together for Bristol Ideas and South West Silents’ Modernism 1922 season represents Kevin’s love for film.

And as you sit in the cinema about to watch one of these films – armed with a copy of the book, I hope – please do give a thought for the wonderful Kevin Jackson. Here’s to the past, the present and the future of cinema. . . and to Kevin. Enjoy!

A film graduate from UWE Bristol, James Harrison works at BBC Bristol, where he has been involved in numerous film and archive-related documentary productions. He is a graduate of the Giornate del Cinema Muto Collegium (Pordenone Silent Film Festival). He is the co-director / co-curator of South West Silents, Film Noir UK and a co-founder of Cinema Rediscovered.

Image credit: Callum Lawrence

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