What do you need to make a great movie? At the end of a week at Pordenone, is it the images that burn in your mind, or the stories that tug at your heart? Today we had more films that wooed us with visual than narrative pleasure, making for an exhilarating lineup that celebrated the artistry of silent cinema.
Let us begin at the end – with the gala performance of The Chess Player (Raymond Bernard, 1927), restored by Photoplay in 1990 and playing here with a superb orchestral rendition of Henri Rabaud’s original score. This story of revolutions and robotics is a tremendous one, but it’s the images that scorch: The automaton army raising its sabers in unison; Edith Jehanne surveying the wreckage through a broken window; the pyrotechnic display of the firing squad in a snowy palace courtyard. A wonderful, rousing, and visually thrilled film that provided a suitably grand flourish to a week that has revelled in epic excitement.
A case in point: the tremendous The Last of the Mohicans (1920), one of those Canon Revisited films that is tucked away in an unassuming slot in the schedule and acts like a shot in the arm to the jaded festivalgoer. I had not seen it before and my expectations were somewhere around the middle, but this is wonderful stuff. Amid the action (which is wonderfully staged and always nailbiting) what emerges is an unexpectedly tragic and touching romance – one you wouldn’t go looking for in material like this, but there you go. I was moved. And of course that cliffhanger sequence is the best we have seen all week and we have seen some excellent ones.
At her Specters of Slapstick book launch, Maggie Hennefeld used a neat phrase for an issue that troubles, or at least preoccupies, many of us at Pordenone. “Not all of these films,” she said, “have transparently redemptive politics.” In many movies from the silent era, redemption is certainly opaque, or even absent, politically speaking. That helps us to get our heads around, the depiction of Native Americans in The Last of the Mohicans, which is nuanced without being perfect – there are villainous caricatures among them, but also a hero, and an understanding of the settlers’ crimes. It’s strange too, that the story is so touching when, well, if you wanted to make a transcendent romance these days, you might not start with this subject matter, however popular the novel.
Maggie’s phrase is also a neat way of describing the awkward feeling, for example, of watching Stepinfetchit play daft and dishonest as a caricatured African-American servant in Stahl’s In Old Kentucky (1927) – while also noting that the emotional closeness between staff and employer in this scenario lands somewhere on a line between the sweet maid in Suspicious Wives and the far more redemptive domestic setup in Imitation of Life (1934). The same could easily be said about the servants in John H Collins’s southern drama The Ploughshare (1915), also showing today. These three movies wouldn’t pass a “redemptive politics” test if made today, but as sympathetic (and hopefully, at the end of this week, well-informed) viewers, we can try to understand what progressiveness is at play.
The Ploughshare knew which side its bread was buttered on – this drama felt more than a little flat, but was occasionally beautifully shot. A red-tinted two-shot framed by a window, for example. I can barely remember the plot though.
In Old Kentucky also had a confused narrative – having been re-edited by the studio against Stahl’s wishes I think. James Murray is the son of an old Kentucky family who returns home from the war shell-shocked, and soon becomes estranged. There’s a financial crisis too, the resolution of which hangs on the outcome of a race at the Kentucky Derby. Despite the flimsiness of what precedes the race, this heart-pounding finish was worth the price of admission, as they say. And while it wasn’t the best of the Stahls, it gave us plenty to discuss about the many we have seen this week. A discussion that will continue for many years now, and in more rarefied places than this one. Kudos to Charles Barr and Bruce Babington for the book, and for beginning a conversation about a neglected filmmaker that was long overdue.
There was a real treat for us on the final day: a package of early films from the Desmet collection, curated under the theme of “neighbours”. Cue waterfights, noise pollution, apple scrumping and even love letters as people rubbed along in their various ways. It was a tight and very enjoyable selection, and a reminder that this year’s lineup has been light on early cinema. These programmes of short material are, as I am sure I am mentioned previously, a delight to watch and a devil to write about. What stood out? A sharp Max Linder comedy staged on two floors, Mes Voisins Font Danser (1908) and a Vitagraph comedy about “a girl who should have been a boy” called When Mary Grew Up (1913). All accompanied with great inventiveness and aplomb by masterclass student Nick Sosin, on piano, ukulele and voice. The second masterclass student being unexpectedly absent, Meg Morley stood in to take her place and gave us a piano score for The Last of the Mohicans that was among the best we had heard all week. Brava.
Before I say goodbye, a confession. I have been a little coy about the music in these reports. It’s for a good reason – this year the Giornate inaugurated the David Gill Prize for the best collaborative musical accompaniment. I was honoured to be on the jury, with some very illustrious folk, and especially thrilled to help present the award tonight, to Stephen Horne and Luigi Vitale, for L’Atlantide. It was a fantastic score, and had to be put together with little time due to unfortunate circumstances – not that you would know it, from the variety and fluidity of the music and that haunting vibraphone melody. Deserved winners!
Let me leave you with that note of triumph. It has been an excellent festival and I was consistently engaged, fascinated and basically hooked by the films. Congratulations as ever to Jay and his team, and to the dedicated devotees of silent cinema who attend each year. Which festival has such an active audience? I think the Giornate beats all. See you next year!
- Intertitle of the day 1: “Even in a wilderness, gently-bred women somehow maintain the grace and dignity of life.” Good for the ladies of The Last of the Mohicans – I have spent a week in a four-star hotel in Italy and I am all creases.
- Intertitle of the day 2: “Sir! You are entirely too keen on playing the piano! I am going back to my mother.” The opening card from Gontran et la Voisine Inconnue (1913) provoked an especially loud chortle at this festival of film and music.
- The screen as mirror: Who among us didn’t look at Mary desperately fighting sleep on top of that cliff in The Last of the Mohicans and think: “it me”? With the late nights and the sunshine and the dark hall, it’s all too easy to micronap during a Pordenone film, as Lawrence Napper points out here.
- False endings: Two of the short films playing on the last day (Something Good – Negro Kiss, 1898, and Impromptu, 2017) intermittently faded to black, fooling some of us into applauding midway. And The Chess Player had an intermission. Maybe the festival isn’t over after all, maybe it’s just a trick? Maybe?
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