And in the meantime we must scrutinize the things that have vanished, needing to know if only to avoid them. Counterfeits of the past, under new names, may easily be mistaken for the future. The past, that ghostly traveller, is liable to forge his papers – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
You wait weeks for one Douglas Fairbanks picture and on a rainy Sunday in Pordenone you get two! I am beginning to suspect I may have a wee crush on Mr Fairbanks Sr, so help me. Don’t tell me we can’t be together.
Forget that nonsense for a minute, the wet Sunday morning began with another fine selection of City Symphonies. Much to admire in all of them, but my favourite was the lyrical De Steeg/The Alley (1932), a portrait of a street in Rotterdam, and the people who live there, shot so nimbly and sensitively I wanted to walk down that road and meet those people straight away. Second, for me, was a similar piece, Pierement (Barrel Organ, 1931), shot in a working-class district of Amsterdam. As we follow the progress of the organ down the road, we meet new faces, new places and the day winds on, with the passage of time marked as the barrel organ cards concertina into their neat stack at the back of cart. A simple idea, beautifully executed.
Softened up, we settled into the Woody Allen fever dream that is When the Clouds Roll By (1919), the first item in the much anticipated Victor Fleming retrospective. Dancing vegetables! Douglas Fairbanks walking on the ceiling! Fairbanks is astonishing in this one: vibrant and funny and handsome and romantic and mad all at once – and the film is shot with humour and ingenuity and bags of style. Plus, I cared about all the characters, despite the ludicrous story – the superstitious mania shared by Fairbanks and his lady-love was cute and quirky rather then maddening as it would be in real life. It is a real cutie this picture – come for the famous dream sequence and stay for Dougie’s magnetic personality.
After Fairbanks, only the most masculine of movies could satisfy the Verdi audience, so a grab-bag of six westerns scratched the itch perfectly. These were a little rough and ready at times (just how we like em, eh?) but this was no endurance feat. These early westerns may have the slenderest of plots, are sometimes crudely performed and oddly staged, but they have a dynamism that’s hard to resist. And there were touches in each film (a desperate proposal on a playing card, for example) that made them irresitibly human. This programme flew by. It was like being the despatch rider in Saved by the Pony Express (1909) leaping on to a new horse as soon as one tired out. That would make Allan Dwan’s The Poisoned Flume, the wild stallion of the bunch … which is a fair shout. As Richard Abel points out in the Giornate catalogue, the irrigation of California would prove contentious on film right up to Chinatown and this is a captivating revenge drama, where the devil really was in the details.
Pordenone is truly an international festival, where one may easily find oneself watching a German print of an American film from a Dutch archive in an Italian theatre, with French and Russian neighbours. So it was a shame that a documentary called Thirty Years of Motion Pictures (1927) gave a completely US-biased view of cinematic history – it was Edison wot dun it, apparently. However, this lengthy and not-entirely factual doc did have an excuse. it was a puff piece for Kodak, and many of its flaws were forgotten at the end when a card proudly trumpeted that Kodak produced (then, in 1927) 147,000 miles of celluloid a year, “enough to girdle the world six times over”. How many miles does it produce now? That’s right. Blub.
And no need for a documentary’s worthy lecturing when the short that preceded it collapsed centuries of motion picture art into one seven-minute fairytale. The Fairytale Woods – A Shadow Play (1920) was a richly tinted live-action shadow film – a living, breathing Lotte Reiniger. Here were performance, graphic design, stagecraft, puppetry, dance, cinematography and storytelling at their purest. Divine.
Even I can reach hunk overload, so I skipped Der Unuberwindliche (1928) and proceeded directly to the programme from Argentina. A few lightning sketches of no doubt pressing satire in the early 1920s were followed by an extended advert for a tobacco company, which as it showed how the product was processed and packed in no little detail, was kind of compelling. The main event was an expedition film: Entre Los Hielos de las Islas Orcadias (1927). This jaunt down to Antarctica was an amateur film, which showed to some extent, but the landscapes were so stunning and it was so nicely presented, despite the odd aspect ratio, that I was rather charmed by it. Sickened too, I have to admit, as our trusty crew set about trapping, goading, shooting and gutting seals and so on. There was also a lot of enjoyable sub-Nanook fishing and igloo building and some adorable penguins too, Something about their soft, fluid bodies and ruffled feathers reminded me of a Richard Williams animation, which is always a good thing. And more of that anon.
I saw Stephen Horne accompany Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine (1924) in London recently – he has developed a triumphantly creative and witty score for this complex film. I heard some things about Marcel L’Herbier tonight that I better not repeat until I have calmed down a little. Perhaps the man, like his films, was clever but hard to warm to. But Horne and Herbier played a blinder to a packed and appreciative crowd tonight in Pordenone, with the assistance of Frank Bockius on percussion.
Before bed, one more date with Douglas. In The Mollycoddle (1920) our man must prove he is not just a namby-pamby European softie but a real all-American action hero. And by George he does. This is all jolly good fun, with Fairbanks unafraid to look a bit of a berk along the way, which is ever so refreshing, and a spectacular western-style ending out in Arizona. I could have done without the repeated references to “primitive” culture (in relation to Native Americans), which were all very heavy-handed to say the least. But as a certain silent cinema hero in a baseball cap pointed out to me in the hotel lift tonight: “The film’s nearly 100 years old – you gotta give em a bit of credit.” So I shall.
Not the intertitle of the day
“Cheery Tom kills himself accidentally.” This from Saved by The Pony Express (1909) would be a hands-down winner, but we have kinda run this one before so it would be cheating.
Insecure intertitle of the day
“And the workers give a ‘Long Live Spain!’ worthy of a talking picture.” That’s from the snappily titled Industriales Progresistas Fabrica de Cigarillos Fernandez & Sust (1929)
Proposal of the day
“Please marry me. Look here!” Dougie Fairbanks gets his guns out in the name of love, in When the Clouds Roll By
- For more information on all of these films, the Giornate catalogue is available online here