Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 8

Mabel Normand in Won in a Cupboard (1914) National Film Preservation Foundation
Mabel Normand in Won in a Cupboard (1914) National Film Preservation Foundation

Update: My Guardian report from the Giornate is here

That’s all, folks. I don’t know about the other festival delegates, but I am utterly and completely scherben*. it has been a fantastic festival: eight days to wallow in the full diversity of what we call silent cinema. I have learned a lot, met some wonderful people and enjoyed many, many movies.

The final day began with rain, a sleepy trek to the Cinemazero and some really quite startling footage, completely unsuited to the tender hour. I am not talking about Felix the Cat, who entertained a select crowd with his adventures as a wildlife documentarian in Felix the Cat in Jungle Bungles (1928). I am talking about the new documentary feature by David Cairns and Paul Duane, Natan. This award-winning doc tells the truth, or attempts to, about Bernard Natan and his incredible life.

Natan has a terribly sad story to tell, one that starts with such promise. It’s a story of a young Romanian immigrant to France in the 1900s who fell in love with the cinema and through his hard work and enthusiasm rose to such prominence within the industry that by 1929 he was in charge of Pathé: expanding the business, and pushing forward innovations in sound, colour and CinemaScope ahead of his peers. Sadly, the rising tide of antisemitism in the 30s resulted in smears against his name in the press (the “Pathé Swindler”). A conviction for fraud led to a jail sentence in the late 30s and when he was released, he was stripped of his French nationality, and sent to his death in Auschwitz-Birkenau via the Drancy camp north of Paris. As if that weren’t enough, the cruel twist in the story is that decades after he died, it was asserted that Natan had been heavily involved in making porn films – even when he was a Pathé executive. This is where the startling footage comes in. You’ll have to make up your own mind when you see it whether to be more shocked by the content of the antique sex films or the viciousness of the accusations against Natan. But you should see this film: Natan is an intelligent, stylishly made film and a valiant attempt to rehabilitate a film pioneer who has not just been forgotten, but had his reputation utterly trashed. Co-director David Cairns was in attendance to answer questions from a slightly shellshocked and outraged audience, before we turned our minds to the relatively uncontroversial Corricks.

The PIgeon Fairy (Gaston Velle, 1906) National Film & Sound Archive, Canberra
The Pigeon Fairy (Gaston Velle, 1906) National Film & Sound Archive, Canberra

The last tranche of earlies from the Corrick Collection contained films as diverse and delightful as you’d expect. My favourite by far being the candy-coloured La Fée aux Pigeons (1906). I very much liked the British comedy The Doctored Beer, or how the Copper was Copped (1906) too, and The Lonely Villa (1909), a slightly truncated version of a sprightly variation on DW Griffith’s woman-in-isolated-place-in-peril-from-circling-vagabonds setup – featuring Mary Pickford and Mack Sennett.

There were more treats to some in the Rediscoveries strand but I was only able to stay to see the Mabel Normand debut Won in a Cupboard (1914), which was just as anarchic and violent as you’d expect. Normand was as wide-eyed and perky as you could hope, also. Does she qualify as an unsung woman of silent comedy? Perhaps, but she could be more sung, I’m sure, and I hope the 2014 Tramp Centenary celebrations play her tune a little.

Ironie della Vita (1917) Collection Austrian Film Museum
Ironie della Vita (1917) Collection Austrian Film Museum

Marriage, or rather engagement, Italian style created a nice early afternoon double-bill of high drama and true romance. The restored fragments of  Ironie Della Vita (1917) offered snippets of a love story: a romantic picnic, a chance night in a hotel, a seduction, a wedding. I Promessi Sposi (1913) was an adaptation of a classic Italian novel with big ideas, starring a popular duo of the time: Eleuterio Rodolfu and Gigetta Morano. A twisting storyline takes us from one spectacular location or well-appointed interior to another. But it’s the scenes set during the plague that will stick in your memory: grotesque piles of the dead and the dying offering an alternative backdrop to the tapestries and woodland elsewhere.

Arsenal (1929) Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Kiev
Arsenal (1929) Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Kiev

We’re close to the finish now, and even closer when I confess I skipped the final Anny Ondra film. I did, however, catch Dovzhenko’s Arsenal (1929): magnificently bombastic as ever, and even more so with thunderous improvised accompaniment by pianist/vocalist Yuri Kuznetsov.

We closed the evening with our clown friend, Ko-Ko in 1999 (1927) and, for more time-travel, two modern silents, one of which, The Girl with the Mechanical Maiden (Andrew Legge, 2013), I really liked. It’s a dialogue-free steampunk short about a child raised by a robot nurse, featuring Dominic West as the hapless single dad who builds the machine. It was sweet, sinister and surprising too. You may remember his The Unusual Inventions of Henry Cavendish. Either way, do catch this one.

But before that, the closing-night gala, and old friends Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. The twist with the former being a grand new orchestral score for The Freshman (1925) from Carl David and the twist with Keaton being that we hadn’t seen some of these gags before. Yup. Unseen Buster Keaton: a long-forgotten 1921 version of The Blacksmith, which had been idling in a French archive. As we had seen the standard version earlier in the week, on Benshi night, it was possible to do a compare and contrast. The opening gag with the tall tree was missing, and the sequence in which Buster Keaton dirties Virginia Fox’s horse has gone too. In their place is an extended chase sequence, involving Fox and a botched proposal, and a gag in which Buster and Joe Roberts watch a woman undress through a window. There’s more story in the version, and it feels very natural. The joy is that we don’t need to choose between the two cuts – now we have both.

The Freshman (1925) Harold Lloyd Entertainment, Inc.
The Freshman (1925) Harold Lloyd Entertainment, Inc.

What to say about The Freshman? It was breezy, cute and the perfect way to banish the end-of-festival blues. Last year I was a Giornate fresher and now, although I don’t quite make veteran status, I fully understand why people keep coming back. This was a packed and varied programme, but each film you see reveals new areas to explore: itches that only a festival as prestigious and all-encompassing as this one can scratch. Thanks to all who helped to make this year such a success, and I look forward to seeing what’s in store next year. Arrivederci!


Of the films I hadn’t seen before (ie the overwhelming majority): Flicken i Frack, Unter der Laterne, Dva Dni and Scherben, I reckon … I may change my mind tomorrow. And the next day.

Giornate stats

  • Eight days
  • 37 feature films watched, plus many shorts and scrap
  • 9,246 words blogged

Tweet of the festival

* OK, I know it doesn’t mean that …

7 thoughts on “Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 8”

  1. I can’t believe I forgot about the Pordenone film festival again! After learning about it from reading your post last year I vowed to go this year. It crept up quicker than I realised.

    Ho Hum….Thanks for the post though, to show me what I missed.

  2. Hats off for having battling sleep-deprivation to write these posts each day. It was a thoroughly enjoyable, if exhausting festival and your posts capture that well. Highlights for me were Two Days and The Night Coachman. Loved the Swedish strand, especially Flicken i Frac (though they were all too long). Not a fan of the Lamprechts although I liked The People Upstairs. Scherben was beautiful to watch although not easy viewing.

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