Norma Desmond reckoned the silents didn’t need dialogue. But she never came to the Giornate. This may be a silent film festival but it’s good to talk. And listen. So I spent about as much time listening to people chat today as I did watching them mouth words. And yes, today did mark the return of benshi artist Ichiko Kataora to Pordenone with the Japanese silent Chushingura (1910-1917). So there is a method to this festival madness, I promise you.
First I attended the Women and Film History International meeting where there was lots of good news being shared, including forthcoming updates to the wondrous Women Film Pioneers Project website and a feminist film festival in Frankfurt. If you want to join Women and Film History International you can sign up online, and rumour has it you may even win a prize.
From there I went to the collegium dialogue (well I caught a little of Neil Brand in masterclass mode too, in the interests of full disclosure), which was on the European Slapstick and Nasty Women strands. Steve Massa, Ulrich Ruedel, Maggie Hennefeld, Laura Horak and Elif Rongen had to plenty tell us about how to uncover the lesser-known histories of silent comediennes, whether the barrier is language, gender, or even formats. If your films survive on 28mm, it’s just so much less likely that they will be digitised, and there’s so much less chance of you being remembered alongside the stars of slapstick. These five are some of my favourite speakers – erudite and passionate and casting a fresh perspective on film history with almost every answer. And the questions from the Collegians were typically astute.
At this point I took a break to see some films but I was back in the jaw-nate for two Filmfair presentations. Kimberly Pucci spoke very passionately about her grandfather Reginald Denny, and the book she has written about him, Prince of Drones. We all knew Denny was an aviation pioneer as well as an actor, right? No excuse not to, now. I also enjoyed the short presentation from Jeffery Masino of Flicker Alley on the joys of published media and the tribulations of bringing silent film to Blu-ray. Despite the challenges in his field, he seemed fairly chipper about things – and why not when his company puts out such lovely discs? Turns out I am not the only person here present who cherishes their Flicker Alley calendar.
I should get on to the silents now, but I have just two further bits of chit-chat. Tonight at the evening show prize for last year’s best Collegium essay was handed out to Stephan Ahrens, and the Haghefilm restoration fellowship was given to Leenali Khairna, who had brought the colour back to a Pathé historical drama about Napoléon: 1812 (The Retreat from Moscow, 1912), which we were lucky enough to see on the Verdi screen.
But my day belonged once again to Weimar cinema and a fascinating (and owing to slight mixup, briefly baffling) selection of short films themed around “The social question”. There was a persistent rodent theme to this programme, which opened with an introduction to breeding white mice as a wholesome hobby and concluded with the powerful have-and-have-nots propaganda film Zwei Welten (1929), which ultimately concluded: “There are two types of rats in the world … the full ones and the hungry ones… and they want to decide your future!” The onus was very firmly on the viewer to make a difference at the ballot box and divert the country’s future path to democracy rather than dictatorship. Well, it’s enough to make you queasy.
For those who want a little more artsiness and storytelling to sugar the political pill, the best thing here was surely Ernö Metzner’s avant-garde drama Polizeibericht Überfall (1929), which follows the “money is the root of all evil” idea to its ultimate conclusion. Here the casual dropping of a single Reichsmark in the street sets off a chain of greed and criminality that results in a bloody murder. Powerfully done, with image distortions and jarring close-ups. It’s a portrait of an economy teetering into crisis and about to pull the fabric of society down with it – but all on a miniature scale. Scary stuff.
This must have been a tricky programme to play for, but Donald Sosin made it seem easy, following each twist of tone and tack as if it were natural. I especially liked his music for Polizeibericht Überfall, not least when he incorporated his own “clinking-clanking sound” into the music, simply by emptying his pocket change over the piano.
Tonight we had a Reginald Denny double-bill, and a swift change of music in between. John Sweeney jauntily accompanied a short Universal promotional film from 1925, in which an east-coast journalist is shown, wide-eyed, around the studio lot and introduced to its roster of big names, including Denny, of course. A veritable “City of Stars”, as the tagline had it. Plenty of clips from Universal silents both famous and obscure too.
All of which was to introduce a new restoration of the Denny feature What Happened to Jones (1926), with a vigorous new score played with gusto by Zerorchestra, written and conducted by Juri Dal Dan. I’ll tell you the plot but it won’t take long. Denny is getting married in the morning, but he gets drawn into a poker game, which is raided by the police. He and a pal (Otis Harlan) go on the run, and try to make it back to the church on time, along the way hiding out in a Turkish bath, dashing around in drag and even pretending Denny is a bishop. If it were made a few years later and less than half as long it would be a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler, but at 70 minutes and with Denny and Harlan it has a little more weight, and like Oh, Doctor! earlier in the week, it is enviably tightly scripted. Check out the neat bow of an ending – it’s a beauty.
This cup of tea isn’t quite my bag, but reader you better believe me, I giggled and some at this. Why? Well, firstly because Denny sells it so well – he’s so serious even when the film is so silly. Hippfest supremo Ali Strauss nailed it on the steps of the Verdi when she compared his appeal to that of Cary Grant. And he was certainly quite a diverting sight stripped down to his cloche and vest I will admit – purely in the interests of evaluating the mise en scène, you understand. Second, because of Harlan and more specifically the comic chemistry between him and Denny. And last but by no means least, because of the scene-stealing presence of Zasu Pitts as a housemaid who is not half as daft as she looks.
And with that, I think I have talked enough for today. Speak to you tomorrow!
- Intertitle of the day: “I never learned to parlez Francais so you may as well put a lid on it!” That titbit from Min Svigerinde Fra Amerika (My Sister-in-law from America (1917), playing in the Euro Slapstick strand, comes to you from Lawrence Napper. Yes, my intertitle spies are everywhere.
- Pordenone truthbomb of the day: Paolo Tosini was talking at the Flicker Alley presentation today about the relatively poor availability of silents on DVD. “The question is always: ‘I love the movie that I saw here yesterday. Where can I see it?’ The answer is ‘here, yesterday’.” Yup.
- You can read more about the festival, and all of the films, on the Giornate website.
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