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.