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 three

5th–6th October

By the middle of the week at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto I was a little starved of Vitamin D and spent more time outside the cinema than usual. I did, however, see the second screening of shorts from the Corrick Collection, as well as the triumphant evening event of Chaplin’s The Circus. Furthermore, I was lucky enough to catch a rediscovered fragment from Victor Sjostrom’s The Divine Woman (1928), featuring a tantalising kiss from none other than Greta Garbo.

Some other things I enjoyed about Pordenone (aside from the films):

  • Spritz Aperol – the amazing drink that looks (and tastes – sorta…) like alcoholic Irn Bru.
  • Little doggies – Pordenone is full of tiny dogs, particularly poodles, pugs and chihuahuas. Felt just like Hollywood.
  • Getting up in time to have a cappuccino with my book (and trusty film nerd bookmark!) before the first screening.
  • Festival tote bags – this year’s bags were a festive shade of metallic red, with Merna Kennedy and Charlie Chaplin. A touch camp, perhaps, but attractive nonetheless.

On Thursday I was back on cinephillic form, and was in the cinema at 9am in time for Sjostrom’s The Secret of the Monastery (1922). As Eric from Silent Toronto says, there is ‘nothing like a cuckold revenge story to get the day going.’ Historical dramas from any era tend to leave me cold, and this was no exception. Not that it’s a bad film, just a little heavy for that time of morning.

The afternoon was a bizarre and educational programme largely consisting of sound films (surprisingly). First came the experiments of Sven A:son Berglund – a pioneering sound engineer who presented a strip of film synched to a separate film bearing an optical sound track to King Gustav V in 1921. The following year, he was paid to go to Germany and carry out more experiments for Ernemann AG. The presentation in Pordenone came from those Dresden tests, including music, everyday noise and a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. The sounds have been rediscovered and preserved by the Deutsches Filminstitut in Frankfurt, and were presented alongside images of the optical sound repeated across the screen (i.e. lots of wobbly vertical lines). The effect reminded me of some of the more experimental sound animators, such as Len Lye or Oskar Fischinger.

Speaking of animation, Thursday brought a welcome second dose of Japanese cartoons, courtesy of the National Film Center of Japan. The second selection pulled away from the cut-outs, silhouettes and tints of the silent period and instead displayed some bold and abstract examples of sound and colour. There were too many films to discuss individually, but I think the one that made the greatest impression was the eerily prophetic A Day after a Thousand Years (1933) by Shigeji Ogino – a Kafkaesque, monochrome vision of the future where Tokyo is renamed Central City. The protagonist is (according to the programme notes) an animated version of the animator, who wakes up in the futuristic afterlife having been killed in the ‘Great War of 1942’. Remember, kids, this film was made before the onset of WWII – spooky!

The evening brought a welcome return to silent features with The Canadian (William Beaudine, 1926). The urban/rural divide is a repeating motif in American silent cinema; in this film, recently impoverished London resident Nora (Mona Palma) arrives at her brother’s farm in the Canadian wheatfields and spontaneously  decides to marry local farmhand Frank (Thomas Meigham). Initially a marriage of convenience, Nora is forced to be uncomfortably close to Frank in their two-roomed cabin, and the tension boils over one fateful night…If this story  sounds awfully close to The Wind (the festival’s closing gala screening), that’s because it is – so much so that Kevin Brownlow notes ‘one could almost regard MGM’s The Wind (1928) as a remake.’

More on The Wind tomorrow, as well as reflections and personal favourites from the festival.

Pordenone diary part two

3rd-4th October 

Ciao! What better way to spend a heatwave in Italy but in a darkened auditorium watching silent films from 9am to midnight? That’s what the patrons of the Le Giornate del Cinema Muto did!

Monday heralded the first in two screenings of early cinema shorts from the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia’s Corrick Collection. The collection may be held in Australia, but it includes films originating from Britain, France and the US. The reason that the NFSA has such a wealth of early material is because the Corrick family were a troupe of entertainers who toured their film show overseas in the early part of the 20th century. The collection is invaluable to our understanding of films from the birth of cinema, and offers an enlightening insight into how those films were disseminated. At the point of the screening, however, I was unaware of the context because the festival catalogue had not yet been given out. I’m glad, in a way, because it meant that I approached the films with the same curiosity and delight as the original audiences. I particularly enjoyed the Burmese elephants.

The afternoon provided yet more shorts, this time in the form of Japanese animation (more on that next week). By the evening, however, we were back to feature length films; Marcel L’Herbier’s El Dorado (1921) was screened with Marius-Francois Gaillard’s original score performed on a single piano by Touve Ratovondrahety. Whenever I see a L’Herbier film I am filled with guilt: two years ago at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna I had a free ticket to see Feu Mathias Pascal but got lost on my way to the concert hall. For redemption’s sake, I was determined to love this film. And yet the film is so rich in tinting, emphasising the delicious melodrama, that it was impossible not to love it. Moreover, I was seduced by Eve Francis’s gorgeous dress.

Tuesday began with The Lady of the Dugout (1918) – a fascinating W.S. Van Dyke silent Western (Van Dyke is most famous for the Thin Man series and very little is written of his silent career) starring two bonafide outlaws – the Jennings brothers. However, my attention had been diverted by the preceding short film Deschutes Driftwood (1916) – probably my favourite film of the entire fest. The film is  ‘a Scenic picture from a hobo’s point of view’, and the protagonist was allegedly picked from the local jail (evidently, they took method acting seriously in early cinema). The homeless man tries to hitch a ride on the Northwestern train route but is discovered wherever he hides. The action is interwoven with meandering travelogue sequences from the train’s point-of-view, and the effect is both humourous and touching.

The evening was filled with excitement over the screening of the digitally restored hand-painted print of Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902) – which I discuss in the roundup for Silent London. Afterwards, those who stayed were treated to another fantastic Kozintsev/Trauberg film The Overcoat (1926). Again, large swathes of the narrative passed me by as I delighted in the visuals. Any film featuring a stop-animated coat is fine by me. Unfortunately, I didn’t particularly enjoy Maud Neilssen’s modern score; for me, it was too sparse and ethereal and I felt kinda distanced from what was already a pretty surreal film. However, I am certainly in the minority on that front. For what it’s worth, I really liked Air’s soundtrack to the Melies film, even though they included some naff moments of foley sound.

I’m away this weekend, so the final two diary entries shall have to wait. On Monday: animation, Chaplin and lashings of Prosecco. Enjoy!

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.