To reverse the usual order of proceedings, let’s start with the music, not the movies. This morning, in a Pordenone first for me, I attended one of the masterclasses AKA a crash course in silent film accompaniment, from the professionals, for the benefit of the Giornate audience and two very talented students. This was a fun session, led by Neil Brand and Gabriel Thibaudeau (with a little light heckling from Philip Carli and John Sweeney), who put Richard Siedhoff and Bryson Kemp through their paces with the help of some carefully chosen film clips.
Their instructions were wise, inspired, and stricter than I expected. Also quite bizarre. At one point a student was required to play to The General in the style of Wagner, and then with an added Bossanova rhythm. Another was asked to score the same film just on one bass note, and then to perform a “one-fingered love song”. Don’t google that last one, I fear you might end up somewhere untoward. From the secrets of playing ice, say, or heroism, but with fear, or without patriotism, to the use and abuse of musical cliché and the “toolbox” with which an accompanist can suddenly summons bells, trains, or even China, this was invaluable advice. Brand’s exercise in reading a film, guessing where the narrative and the characters will go next (Beggars of Life was the chosen example), was useful for us critics and punters too.
After that and visit to the collegium dialogue on the Scandinavian cinema strand, I kicked off my day of films with one of those “difficult programmes” – the one on the effects of war. I found this very interesting – the theme was the effects of war on women, I think, with a documentary on the many, many uses that old animal bones can be put to if housewives are wise enough to save them, from soap to glue to margarine (Sammelt Knochen!), a cautionary tale about eating dodgy German potato bread (Comment J’ai Mangé du Pain K.K.) and scenes of German women cleaning windows and shovelling coal to support the war effort. The fetching women in drag of Weimar cinema surely got some inspo from these troopers in jackets and jodhpurs and knee-high boots relishing the chance to get stuck into some serious graft.
There is no way to link between the next two films of the day, except to say it was a segue from commercial Hollywood fare to European art, and we mostly enjoyed the cinematic whiplash that followed. And that both oddly reminded me of classic 1920s German films. The second, Mediolanum (1933, taking its name from the Roman name for Milan), was not quite a city symphony, more an extreme close-up of Milan’s ancient architecture. Filmed at neck-cracking angles, tilting up and down and across the walls, windows and roofs of Milan, this film offers nothing like a skyline or a cityscape, just a series of oblique shots of landmarks otherwise familiar from postcards and guidebooks shot in the conventional manner, eg as a whole, from the ground up. Despite the gloomy print and unorthodox, slightly uncomfortable style, I liked this film, which reminded me most of the magic carpet ride in Faust – with the camera swooping on the bias across all that antique and filigree architecture.
Hollywood’s offering was a bizarre warning narrative about the dangers of communism to American business, which started in fine dramatic style with a brutal Russian pogrom in 1897 or thereabouts. In The Right to Happiness (Allen Holubar, 1919), the twin daughters of an American businessman are separated as tots during this pogrom (one stashed in a blanket box, the other in a cold stove). One grows up a pampered US society lady, the other Bolshevik firebrand. Both are played by Dorothy Phillips, though you may be able to guess that the latter is far more fun to watch. Sadly, though, one of them has to die for Daddy to realise the benefits of offering love and understanding to his workers. It’s a Hollywood Metropolis, basically, on a more prosaic scale, but eight years earlier – with doppelganger ladies alternately rousing and pacifying the workforce, and closing with a cloying compromise about paternalistic management. Still, whatever the film’s longueurs, Philip Carli’s dynamic music gave it more than enough oomph to hit the back row.
After dinner, we returned to the Verdi for a package of 20 recently discovered Lumière actualities, restored by a prize-winning student from the Haghefilm-Selznick School at George Eastman House. I adored these, which looked great on the big, big screen. Subjects included trains and rivers and firefighters and hunts and that most thrilling and cinematic of pastimes: typesetting in a 19th-century French newspaper office. We all have our pet passions, and mine include hot-metal compositing, bad puns and a certain Polish silent movie star.
Speaking of whom … the evening’s main event was another appearance from the young Pola Negri, in Carmen (1918). Too Bizet to watch the opera? Then Ernst Lubitsch’s cheeky romp through the tragic tale is just what you are looking for. It’s a little scratchy this one, with an unexpectedly plodding pace, but Negri was born to play this role, clicking her castanets and swaying her hips as if her life depends on it as the famous thriller in a mantilla. Her eye makeup and her extravagant spit curls are as outrageous as any of the fantasia in The Wildcat – she looks like an Aubrey Beardsley sketch of a flamenco dancer. And her her passion and her earthy humour are just what is required. Harry Liedtke is just sweet and simple enough as her lover/victim/nemesis Don José too. Great crowd scenes and sly comic touches as you would expect from Lubitsch – it may not be one of his best, but it still beats most of the competition, in or out of the ring.
We were lucky to hear Gabriel Thibaudeau’s new score for Carmen tonight, with Cristina Nadal on cello. I loved this and it was the perfect example of what he had taught in the masterclass earlier. Less is more, so give the film room to breathe. I particularly liked the “flirting melody” he had for Carmen as she wheedled her way around a prison guard.
- Achievement of the day: the catalogues had been delayed, but today they arrived and they are fabulous!
- Intertitle of the day: “Don’t be like that. The sparrows on the roofs know what you are.” The avian residents of Seville have got Carmen’s number all right.
- Cigarette break of the day: Dorothy enjoyed her final gasper before dying in The Right to Happiness so much it looked positively post-coital.
- Cameo of the day: amid the medieval and renaissance grandeur, I spied the reflection of a humble window cleaner in Mediolanum.
- Visit the Giornate del Cinema Muto website