Outdoors seems to have become the new fourth wall for film festivals trying to make a splash in a crowded marketplace. This summer I've watched films al fresco in the company of thousands in the town squares of Bologna and Locarno whose festivals make these public screenings their nightly centrepieces. Edinburgh gathered a clutch of classic crowd-pleasers for its weekend under the stars, and next month's London Film festival will take over Trafalgar Square to unveil some long-lost apparitions of the capital on film. With screens growing ubiquitous at home and in the pocket, outdoor movies allow festivals to stress their selling points of scale and community.
Last Sunday night the Cambridge Film festival took its turn with not one but three screens adorning Quayside and Magdalene Street, the city's oldest shopping street. Like London's, these were screening old silent films, well suited to the acoustic vagaries of the outer world.
To the left of the bridge, flowers blossomed in time-lapse, their reflections dissolving on the waters of the Cam. To the right, punters and land lubbers watched Buster Keaton busting several guts. Up at the top of the road, old archive footage of Cambridge unfolded and the street reflected back on itself. Bicycles, buses, students and shoppers of yore rose up to spook us: the encounter was moving and beautiful, until it turned ironic. The second half of the programme featured a lot of footage of the city's '70s panjandrums touring Princess Margaret around the soulless mess they'd made of the old Petty Cury quarter, now a particularly characterless shopping centre called Lion Yard. A small crowd stood under the stars and watched this little memoir of enclosure.
Neil Brand sat in front of them, tinkling his electric ivories. It seemed anywhere there was a screen, he was playing beside it. Two hours earlier I'd seen him accompany Luke McKernan's presentation of archive footage of the early modern Olympics on film; the night before he accompanied a screening of Erich von Stroheim's Blind Husbands. The silent-film conductor-composer Carl Davis also swung by, though I'm not sure what I learnt from his masterclass beyond the fact that he used to work in the epic mode (during the two decades when the Thames Silents series kept him busy writing scores for the big classics of the late silent era), but more recently has taken the fun approach to a complete cycle of Chaplin's Mutual films. Davis showed us a showreel of the former and a complete example of the latter, Behind the Screen, with Chaplin as a stage hand bouncing around the various sets of a film studio.
The festival carries on until this Sunday, with retrospectives on Derek Jarman, Ulrich Seidl, Boris Karloff, Polish cinema and the golden age of Warner Bros, as well as new features and documentaries and a strand of new-fangled videos made with computer-game software. I'll be back for more.