Hello. Has it really been a whole year since this? Hold on to your bonnets, because we are back in Pordenone and it’s Saturday night. It’s time. To face. The silents.
Which is another way of saying the the 32nd Giornate del Cinema Muto has begun, and just a few hours in, we have have had a sampler of diverse treats to come.
My highlight of the first day comes from Sealed Lips, the Swedish strand of the programme that I had big hopes for. Flickan i Frack (The Girl in Tails, 1926) is essentially a teen rom-com, but one saturated in enough intersectional goodness for a PhD dissertation or two. The population of a small provincial town get themselves into terrible muddles by going about various kinds of drag – dressing up or down socially, mostly, but there is also moral posturing, intellectual pretension and, crucially, some audacious transvestism in the mix. Despite such a heavy burden of subtext and inference, Flickan i Frack is light on its feet, witty and winningly romantic. It was directed by Karin Swanström, better known perhaps as an actress – and it is very much a female-oriented film, from its bright heroine who attends her graduation ball in a man’s dress suit (just to make a point, with seemingly no fear that her boyfriend might dislike it, and looking utterly fabulous) to the malevolent matriarch upon whom her future happiness depends (played brilliant by Swanström) and the “wild herd of learned women” who loiter ambiguously in the background.
But I am getting ahead of myself. My first glimpse of the festival, as I scurried in late to the first session, was of Anny Ondra, plonked on a hay cart and throwing a fit. The minutes I caught of Gilly Poprvé v Praze (1920) were a lively, rowdy introduction to the Giornate’s Ondra retrospective. It was also far shorter and sweeter than the following feature. Setrele Písmo (The Missing Letters, 1921), was a messy, rather over-extended and patchy film about (bear with me) two sculptors (one morally lax and successful, the other upstanding and impoverished) the former’s two models (one vengeful and brunette, one blonde and rather dull), a couple of palimpsests, some hidden treasure, the construction industry and public arts funding. Nice funicular sequence. Ondra, in an early and atypical role as the second model, was called on to do little more than pose on a pedestal, play with a puppy and pout prettily. To be fair to the film, as we must, it was the product of a garbled production process, incorporating footage from an earlier movie. No wonder its plot had as many layers as one of those palimpsests.
The Saturday night gala was an unusual one. No orchestra tonight, and a modern film too. Spanish director Pablo Berger came on stage to help introduce his sumptuous silent Blancanieves and dedicated it to “All you crazy people who believe that silent cinema is still alive!” He means us, you know, and although I suspect many long-time Pordenone attendees skipped this one, having seen the film at home, this Italian premiere was met with crashing applause and a warm and fuzzy feeling bouncing off the walls of the Teatro Verdi. The bullfighting dwarves and sado-masochistic stepmom raised laughs, the ending provoked gasps and all around there was swooning over the gorgeous black-and-whiteness of it all. Haven’t seen Blancanieves yet? Rectify that forthwith.
There was more today, but mostly I missed it. I can only tell you about the recently found titbits that played before Blancanieves: treasures both, in their own way. The New Operator (1911) is a very short film that bounds from slapstick into something approaching the avant-garde, as a hapless cameraman causes havoc in Philadelphia on assignment for Lubin Studio and creates a cutting-edge monster by accident. David Robinson told us to watch out for one Harry Myers here – who would later feature in Chaplin’s City Lights. This was followed by a recently unearthed trailer for Vertov’s The Eleventh – all mesmerising animation and staccato captions – a curtain-raiser for the festival Ukrainian strand.
Last year, a silent film luminary who shall not be named, suggested to me that, judging by the typos, I wrote my Pordenone bulletins “at two in the morning after you have had a wine or two”. Well, hah. It’s not even midnight (in England) yet. Cheers!