What is admirable in the clash of young minds is that no one can foresee the spark that sets off an explosion, or predict what kind of explosion it will be. – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Forgive me and my fellow delegates if we are a little dazed, but today an array of high-wattage stars dazzled the Verdi: Clara Bow, Ossi Oswalda and Douglas Fairbanks all took a turn in the spotlight, and didn’t we all know about it? But they were all playing second fiddle, I am afraid, to one of the festival’s guests of honour.
The real star of the day was Naum Kleiman, erstwhile director of the Moscow Cinema Museum, who was in town to deliver the Jonathan Dennis lecture at the Giornate. He didn’t really do that, though. He spoke a few words, and graciously answered our questions, but instead of a formal lecture we watched a new film that has been made about Kleiman, the Museum, and the frankly appalling state of affairs in Russia today, where the museum has been evicted and its good works all-but sacrificed to the opaque aims of the Ministry of Culture. It was called Cinema: a Public Affair, and it was directed by Tatiana Brandrup, who was also in attendance to answer questions. At an event where we have so much Russian cinema to celebrate, it is beyond distressing to learn that film culture in that country is in such a perilous position. Founded in 1989, the Cinema Museum used to show 20 – 20! – films a day. Important films, films from around the world, films that are now impossible to see in Russia. It was always run on a shoestring – Jean-Luc Godard made a gift to the Museum of a Dolby sound system ahead of a retrospective of his works there. But now, the situation is as absurd as something in one of the Soviet comedies screening at the Giornate. A new building intended to house the Museum has been repurposed as a parking garage, while the Museum’s collections are all in temporary storage at yes, garages at the Mosfilm studios…
Kleiman is an inspiring man, who spoke in the film movingly about the first film he remembered seeing as a four-year-old child. Before that point he had seen war, he had seen fear and devastation, in fact his own father was missing, but one night at a park near his refugee camp in Tashkent, he saw the cinema for the first time. That screening of Michael Powell’s The Thief of Bagdad was to him a “window on to another reality”. He stood on his bench, and flapped his hands, imagining that he had a magic carpet under his feet. And he has dedicated his life to sharing that magic, that escape, that understanding of a different world, with other people. A member of the Verdi audience asked simply: “How do you find the strength to go on fighting?” “I’m not fighting,” he replied. “I’m just working.”
For Kleiman, the conversation that films can spark are almost the point of screening them. “The film begins when it’s over,” he said. And although they were lighthearted in tone, this morning’s programme of shorts illustrated that perfectly. A package put together by Laura Horak on the theme of cross-dressing girls on film, these movies, which were mostly comedies, were hugely intriguing, and provided delicious food for thought. The shorts included actresses playing boys, playing dual roles or simply playing characters who dress up as lads, or take on male characteristics. The way that the teens and twenties of the last century approach these ideas is consistently intriguing – so often they skirt close to something really subversive, something to challenge the relentless heterosexuality of so much silent Hollywood cinema, and then retreat, having nibbled their doughnut and kept it too. I enjoyed Anna Q Nilsson as a rebel spy in disguise during the civil war in The Darling of the CSA (1912) (riding sidesaddle even when in drag). I also liked a futuristic “nightmare” of 21st-century gender role reversals called What is the World Coming to? (1926), a surprisingly nifty restoration of a 16mm print, in which a kept husband worries that his bigshot wife spends too much time with her “sheik stenographer”.
More women bursting the bounds in two of today’s most popular screenings. First, Ossi Oswalda played a woman, and a doll, of healthy appetites and heartening fearlessness in Ernst Lubitsch’s freaky fairytale Die Puppe (1919). From the unpacking of the set to the happy finale, this film offers unalloyed glee: a sexy, satirical Coppelia. I can’t get enough of it. As the automaton said to the Baron’s nephew …
And while we’re on the subject of automata, a modern silent from Iran, Junk Girl (2015), may have taken a few of us by surprise this afternoon. This touching stop-motion animation took us inside the world of a young woman thrown on the scrapheap, metaphorically, physically and figuratively. A little strange and very poignant.
Then this evening, Clara Bow took to the stage and earned a round of applause all of her own. A message to the lovelorn ladies and gentlemen in the auditorium – it’s just a moving picture, I’m afraid. Discussion over drinks later touched on the subject of Clara’s charms: mannered or just marvellous? Well Clara herself would tell you it’s all an act baby, lips and eyes and hips and thighs. She’s playing an unstoppable flirt in this one, Mantrap (1926), which is just as well, and the fact that you can’t tell whether she means it or not is just the risk you take in this life I guess. But Clara is always tops in my book, and here directed by Victor Fleming, photographed by James Wong Howe and seducing the divine Ernest Torrence … well, who could ask for anything more? Sublime accompaniment by Philip Carli? Well yes, we had that too. Mantrap is a first-rate romcom, and I would love to know if say, Amy Schumer or Kristen Wiig puts this movie at the top of their best-of-all-time-ever lists.
Clara was preceded by a strong programme of shorts. I enjoyed a charming, bitesized Max Linder comedy, Petite Rosse (1909), directed by Camille de Morlhon, in which he learns to juggle, or rather doesn’t, in order to win a fair lady’s hand. And Wake Up Lenochka (1934) was as sweet and bright as a lemon drop – this Soviet comedy short was a simple skit on a girl who stays up late reading and can’t get out of bed and to school on time. Directed with charm and flair by Antonina Kudriavtseva with a winning performance from 25-year-old Yaninia Zheimo as the dozy schoolgirl. Despite appearances, only the second of those was actually directed by a woman – which to be fair is a pretty good ratio here.
I am leaving Douglas Fairbanks until last, in the hope that you won’t read this far and so won’t sigh and say “not him again!”. Sorry, but The Mark of Zorro (1920) is like a chocolate-sprinkled double cappuccino on a cloudy morning: luxuriant, sweet and with enough kick to motor your whole day. And the only man I know with enough zest and brio to match Dougie was in the theatre and on the piano – we were treated to a superb Spanish-flavoured accompaniment from Neil Brand, with Frank Bockius upping the tempo on percussion. In this landmark California swashbuckler, Fairbanks is both the slinky Robin Hood in black satin who carves the faces of evil men with his gleaming blade, and his dorky alter ego Don Diego. He’s irresistible in one role, with a flashing smile and spring-loaded legs, and adorable in the other. Fairbanks is a class act, even if you do think he is a terrible showoff, because he makes all this show business look like it’s a breeze. Don’t fight it, feel it.
Intertitle of the day
“Oh, the obscenity!” A chorus of high-kicking dolls scandalises young Lancelot in Die Puppe.
Dish of the day
No sausages for your dinner guests? No problem. In a dream sequence during the Keystone short Dollars and Sense (1916), an alternative presents itself. Take one beloved pet puppy, dunk it in the parlour player-piano and play a little tune. Hey presto, a string of bow-wow bangers will emerge, wearing a ribbon and wagging its little doggy tail. Ugh!
Euphemism of the day
Have you been “worrying about Woodbury”, like the folks in Mantrap? Chance would be a fine thing, I dare say …
Insult of the day
“You idlers! You wasters! You fashion-plates!” Doug corrals the tipsy caballeros in The Mark of Zorro.
- For more information on all of these films, the Giornate catalogue is available online here