On cinephilia, archiving and the need to collect…

As part of the Pordenone Collegium, I’ve been tasked with writing a paper on the experience. The abstract for the paper is now overdue by a week. I’ve had my topic sorted for ages, and I kept scrupulous notes along with my festival catalogue. But now the time has come to get it down on paper… well, I just can’t seem to get it out.

Everyone at the Giornate del Cinema Muto was a cinephile of some description. Some were scholars, others professional archivists, and many regular festival attendees. Moreover, we were all there as collectors. Archivists displayed their lovingly preserved collections of films or related paraphernalia. Historians gathered the knowledge necessary to further their research. The rest of us were anoraks, dutifully ticking off screenings in our daily schedules. I don’t why we cinephiles do it, but we constantly quantify our hobby, through DVD collections, pub quiz accolades or (admittedly) blog posts, as evidence of our dedication to the cause.

Take, for instance, the Davide Turconi Project: a digitised library of 23,000 silent film fragments. The collection is incredible, and I’m sure to discuss it in more detail one day. Paolo Cherchi-Usai and Joshua Yomibe introduced the project to the Collegium in Pordenone, and my paper is in part inspired by Yomibe’s referring to film fans as (and I’m paraphrasing) ‘hoarders of cinephilic relics.’

Well, I am unashamedly a hoarder, and I doubt I would be a film archivist if I didn’t collect the relics of my cinephilia. I hoard the memories of my cinematic experiences more than physical artefacts. Someday, when this recession is over, I will amass great sums of small gauge prints and Photoplay annuals. For now, though, I present a small but deeply personal collection of Brief Encounter themed tourist attractions!

(Brief Encounter is my all-time favourite film, and I can quote it pretty much verbatim.)

The collection began in York, where I worked part-time at the National Railway Museum and its Brief Encounter restaurant. Then, while living in Norwich, I visited the Brief Encounter cafe in Wymondham’s train station (the cafe closed down the week after). Best of all, my grandmother moved to Carnforth in Lancashire, whose train station provided the location for the film’s most iconic scenes.

Which is a really long, roundabout way of saying that I’m going to be spending Christmas in Milford Junction!

Railway Museum photo credit

Pordenone diary part four

7th-8th October

Finally! We come to the end of my Pordenone round-up odyssey. It’s become a bit of an albatross – so much blog worthy stuff has happened since: the announcement of Napoleon at the Royal Festival Hall in 2013,Tacita Dean in the Turbine Hall, the sad death of Barbara Kent, The First Born and A Trip to the Moon gain public exposure at the London Film Festival… I’m also excited by the BFI Southbank’s upcoming MGM season, as it’s a chance for me to see some of the films that have been on my to-watch list for years.

It seems since my return from Italy that silent films are more popular than ever, and they’ve pretty much dominated Kine Artefacts (for good reason: they’re awesome). However, to redress the balance I must focus on sound film and television for a bit. Tomorrow I’ll post the first ‘Watch This’ column of archival Youtube clips, and I’m thinking about spectacular musical sequences… For now, though, here’s a round-up from the final couple of days of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2011.

Rediscoveries are always the most thrilling part of silent film fandom (at least for die hard preservationists), and the queue outside the cinema for The White Shadow attests to the fact that more and more people are intrigued by silent cinema. Moreover, the cinephiles of Pordenone are sticklers for authenticity: a few in the audience made a point of applauding director Graham Cutts, in a thinly veiled rebuke to the common belief that The White Shadow is a rediscovered Alfred Hitchcock film (for Hitch was assistant director, among other things).  On the one hand, the film such as it is was unlikely to have been screened without the Hitchcock credit; I struggle to name other Cutts titles, and only the first three reels survive. On the other, when I tell people I’m a film archivist many instantly reply ‘Oh! I read that they found Hitchcock’s first film!’, which irritates the hell out of my inner pedant. For what it’s worth, I doubt there are any concrete Hitchcockian motifs in The White Shadow – there certainly weren’t in the first half – but the film is a joy nonetheless and I hope one day to see the rest.

Aside from the rediscoveries, I particularly enjoyed the ‘Treasures of the West’ strand of screenings. Not usually a fan of Westerns (like most horror and sci-fi, with a few exceptions, they are generally not my cup of tea), I was pleased to find that most of the silent Westerns on offer were more akin to melodramas, screwballs and travelogues than their epic, widescreen, mid-20th-century counterparts. Salomy Jane (Lucius Henderson, 1914) was a rollicking tale of love amongst wronged outlaws, with a nicely ambiguous ending. Also, it gives me a neat opportunity to big up Yale University’s silent Western lobby card collection – though these cards are from the 1923 version of Bret Harte’s story (I assume missing??).

The final days of Pordenone involved yet more sound. I’m sometimes a bit disparaging of early sound films, because I feel that acting and cinematography became dull and one-dimensional in order to accommodate primitive microphones. However, films such as Alone (Kozintsev and Trauberg, 1931) prove that some filmmakers embraced the medium and used it in an innovative manner. In this example Shostakovich’s music, foley noise and occasional dialogue are montaged in typical Soviet style. A newly trained teacher (Yelena Kuzmina) is reluctantly despatched to the Altai mountains. The lighthearted Moscow scenes are juxtapose effectively with the mountainous wilderness, and the cast is largely made up of untrained Mongolian locals. Will Yelena return to her cosmopolitan, consumerist lifestyle, or accept her duty to the people? Well, what do you expect…

The finale to the 30th Giornate was a triumphant performance by the FVG Mitteleuropa Orchestra, conducted by Carl Davis in his score of The Wind (1928). The film is a stone cold classic, and Lillian Gish was never better, playing the part of cabin feverish Letty – as determined and resolute as she is vulnerable and fragile.

Before I sign off, there’s just enough time for highlights that I didn’t shoehorn in elsewhere:

  • Meeting other bloggers! Silent Toronto, Screen Addict and Burnt Retina are all lovely fellas. We even managed to post Silent London a vintage postcard.
  • Disney’s Laugh-o-Grams! The pre-Mickey animated cartoons were dotted across the week, including Walt’s earliest surviving animation, created for Newman’s theater chain in Kansas City, in which Disney himself features as a lightning sketcher. The clipping above comes from Jerry Beck at Cartoon Brew, where he discusses the two rediscovered Laugh-o-Grams, also screened at Pordenone.
  • The Collegium! Representatives from Lobster Films, the BFI, the EYE Film Institute, the Library of Congress and Filmarchiv Austria, among many others, gave fascinating presentations on their restoration, preservation and curatorial work, and patiently answered all our questions. I cannot recommend the experience enough.

Phew! That’s that until next year!

Pordenone diary part one

1st-2nd October

For overall highlights from Pordenone, see the guest post I did over at Silent London.

So I was lucky enough to be an Associate Collegian of the 30th Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone. Every year the festival invites a dozen young silent film researchers over to take part in the Collegium – a series of dialogues with eminent guests of the fest. The festival pays for the Collegians’ accommodation, and in return the researchers produce a paper in time for the next festival. It’s a pretty cool setup, as it gave us nervous newbies a chance to make new friends and integrate with seasoned veterans of silent film.

Because I was not a full Collegian (i.e. my application was not one of the chosen twelve), I had to find digs elsewhere, and ended up staying in a beautiful flat belonging to a local architect. In exchange for a bed, I helped my host practice her English, and I have to say I would recommend the experience over the packed and pricey Pordenone hotels.

The first couple of days were a baptism of fire. The opening gala was a bombastic screening of Kozintsev and Trauberg’s New Babylon (1929), with original score by Shostakovich, performed by Mark Fitz-Gerald and the FVG Mitteleuropa Orchestra. The film was a revelation of unrelenting montage-editing set during the run-up to the 1871 Paris commune. To be honest, I find it difficult to follow the narrative in films heavy in montage, and in this case I sat back and happily immersed myself in the striking visuals. Don’t think I even read the intertitles… The next day’s Collegium welcomed Fitz-Gerald among a panel of Soviet cinema specialists, which sparked an interesting debate on the film’s history. The alternative ending, which is lost, was of particular interest, and the surviving bit of score was performed after the film.

New Babylon was the first in a series of screenings detailing the collaboration between Shostakovich and Kozintsez/Trauberg’s Factory of the Eccentric Actor (FEKS). Alongside the musical events was a strand of Georgian films, so all in all there was a large Soviet presence at the fest. Interestingly, many of the Collegians had never seen these films before, and hitherto unknown Soviet actors like Yelena Kuzmina, Pyotr Sobolevsky and Sergei Gerasimov had become familiar faces by the week’s end.

Sunday began with the first in a long line of screenings dedicated to Antarctic expeditions – no doubt prompted by last year’s release of The Great White Silence. It seems that every nation bound for the pole took along a camera. Sunday’s batch included Roald Amundson’s Norwegian effort, as well as examples from Scotland, Japan and fragments of  Australian Douglas Mawson’s attempt. The latter was a fascinating example screened alongside reconstructed versions of the lecture that accompanied the film’s various incarnations on tour in the 1910s. The lecture provided some charming commentary of the explorers’ interactions with elephant seals (or ‘sea elephants’, as they shall henceforth be known!).

The afternoon provided a break from heavy travelogues and Soviet films as the Children’s Orchestra of Pordenone performed the music to Oswald the Rabbit in Oh Teacher! (1927) and Buster Keaton’s The Electric House (1922). While it’s not difficult to be charmed by young musicians, it should be stated that those kids are obscenely talented. I was tempted to duck out of the Chaplin double-bill that followed, but was glad that I stayed because the accompaniment came from an awesome brass quintet called Spillimbrass. It’s amazing how new music can make old jokes seem fresh.

In the evening came Mantrap (1926), directed by Victor Fleming and starring Clara Bow as a hopelessly flighty city girl intent on living in the wilds with her yokel husband. At times you forget that the film is silent, and assume that it must have come from the 1940s screwball heyday.

The last film I saw was Die Sklavenkonigin (1924) – a biblical epic directed by Michael Kertesz (who later became Curtiz and directed Casablanca et al.). The story juxtaposes the magnificent Egyptian set-pieces with a love story between a Pharoah prince and a Hebrew slave. Can’t say much more than that as I slept through half of the film – a pattern which repeated itself in all the late-night screenings.

Despite the fact that the festival started late on the Saturday, somehow the programmers managed to shoehorn in over 40 films! More from the fest tomorrow.

festival dispatch: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone 2011

It’s early days re: blog, and yet I must already apologise for disappearing for a week or so. I will be attending the 30th Pordenone Silent Film Festival as an Associate Collegian. The festival’s Collegium is a place for young silent cinema researchers to come together and share their thoughts on the festival programme with visiting experts in film history, research and preservation. This year’s visitors include archivist Paolo Cherchi-Usai, historian Kevin Brownlow and curator Bryony Dixon among many other professionals researching the silent screen. <—This is incredibly exciting for a new film archivist!

Pordenone Silent Film Festival

When I return there will be a blow-by-blow account of the festival screenings and the Collegium talks. In the meantime,  there are a couple of posts queued up for this coming week.