Of what does a revolt consist? Of everything and nothing, a spring slowly released, a fire suddenly breaking out, force operating at random, passing breeze
– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
On a gloriously sunny day in northern Italy (and I do mean glorious) there is nothing to be done except to duck into a dark theatre and watch Soviet cinema, right? Right? Well, that’s how we roll here in Pordenone. Today I expected to be dominated by the screening of Eisenstein’s monumental October (1928), but as ever, the Giornate caught me by surprise. My day began with a simply stunning, and very refreshing Soviet comedy. Just as last year, the Russian Laughter strand is shaping up to be one of my favourites. And it ended with a Japanese film that I feared I wouldn’t get the most out of. Perhaps I didn’t, but I did love it all the same,
Back to Russia. That comedy, Dva Druga, Model I Podruga (Two Friends, a Model and a Girlfriend, 1928) was a real sparkler: it was gorgeously photographed, with sunlight dappling the river our heroes were pootling along, and brightly funny too. Unlike pure slapstick affairs, the comedy here was largely contained in the composition rather than the action – it was, if this is a thing, pictorially funny. Like a newspaper cartoon. Our heroes, the two friends, are seemingly daft soap factory workers who invent a machine, a contraption really, for making packing crates. They think it will increase efficiency at the factory (a noble Soviet aim, for sure) but their villainous overseer disagrees – they’re paid to work, not invent. In the end, the pals, a girl who has run away from her fiancee and this crazy “model” must travel to the big city by river to prove its worth. Endless fun, visually inventive at every turn, and so gentle it undercuts all one’s preconceptions of Soviet bombast at once. Please take any chance you get to see this one.
But if you ordered bombast, today delivered. A two-hour-plus silent movie is a weighty proposition to be honest, but October, with its “catalogue of inventions” is so dazzling, energetic, ferocious and breathtakingly geometric that it feels more like a weekend than a month. Eisenstein’s document of the Russian revolution screened in the Canon Revisited strand, and it is certainly a film that repays the revisiting. Today we were especially lucky to have Günter Buchwald and Frank Bockius in the orchestra pit – performing a stirring score that was no doubt an exhausting feat. I am continually dumbfounded to find that some people are immune to this rousing strain of cinema. These Soviet classics were an early staging post on my route into exploring the silents. I came to them well before the Hollywood films, and they constantly define for me what silent cinema can achieve, which is to say what cinema in total can achieve. So there. The raising of the bridge sequence in October never fails to stop me in my tracks – from the naked viciousness of the bourgeoisie to the white horse martyred several feet above the Neva. And that poor young girl’s trailing hair … As the film continues there is far more to savour than I could even hint at here. The Women’s Death Battalion could furnish several blogposts of political-sexual analysis by themselves. By the time it was over I was ready to storm the palace of silent cinema and loot for more such treasures.
As well as Russia, today we visited Japan and America. But not quite the America we are accustomed to seeing on screen. The first episode of the Bert Williams and Company programme began with a mix of shorts, including Alice Guy-Blaché’s 1912 romcom A Fool and his Money, which was very slight but breezy and a rather queasy Biograph short called Fish (1916) starring Williams himself as a feckless young lad who wants to escape his chores for a day by the river. At the time the film was shot Williams was 42, certainly no boy any more, which adds another layer of discomfort to the racial stereotyping that characterises this flimsy comedy. Far more powerful was the programme closer, a deft 1914 feature-length adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin directed by William Robert Daly, once a widely read and adapted text that has all but disappeared from view, which is bizarre, but perhaps nothing to wail over. Sam Lucas, a fine actor, was the first black man to play the lead on stage and he does so again here, aged 73, although there is blackface elsewhere among the cast. Lucas gives a strong performance in a cleverly made film. There are real, unbearable horrors in this story, and while it’s not outwardly gruesome, this movie hit them home. Look away if you can’t bear a spoiler, but the almost-POV shot of the killing of vile slave-owner Simon Legree was a triumphant touch – situating the audience squarely with the vengeful slave, because after what we have seen we can’t be expected to be anything like impartial. What’s more, it was marvellously accompanied by Donald Sosin, too.
A lost-and-found film is always something to give praise for, and the discovery of fragments of Chuji Tabinikki (A Diary of Chuji’s Travels, 1927) in Hiroshima no less, in 1991, is just short of a miracle. Still, Monday’s screening had me feeing edgy. I am very much a novice at Japanese cinema and can often find the benshi distancing, too hectic, rather than a way in to the film. Not tonight. Chuji Tabinikki is a terribly beautiful film, mesmerising despite its unexpected changes of pace, thanks to its atmosphere of angst and simmering violence. You might expect the mountain landscapes to look lush, but here the oddest constructions become graceful – our lovelorn Okume weeping in the barrel yard at the sake brewery, or the glimpses of the melee of fighting in an adjacent room as a shutter rises and falls. I didn’t always have the tightest grip on the plot, but the wonderful Japanese-language benshi performance of Ichiro Kataoka kept me rooted in the drama, and the tone of the scene, at all times. Kataoka’s voice, with its amazing range of expressions and registers, was accompanied by a small group of musicians who played a sparse, haunting score. At times we were suspended in silence in the Verdi, having to concentrate to follow this very downbeat drama, with its grimacing hero and unfamiliar chivalrous code. But this film rewarded our efforts. Those moments are already one of the highlights of my festival – this was extreme silent cinema.
Intertitle of the day
“Be silent, or I will disembowel you!” Chuji invents a new catchphrase for the Giornate
Film preservation analogy of the day
Word reaches me from the Collegium dialogues that film is like sushi. Why? It’s vinegary, made of layers, and doesn’t keep well. That sounds like a joke, but isn’t.
Don’t-watch-this-it’s-a-talkie of the day
I was interviewed by the lovely Giornate people today, in front of a moving picture camera.
- For more information on all of these films, the Giornate catalogue is available online here