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.
If you are the kind of fool who thinks a programme of Soviet travelogues sounds a bit dry, then you are the same kind of fool as I am. However – as I once advised on this site, when you’re at Pordenone watch one thing that scares you everyday. So I was in the Verdi for the 9am travelogues and boy was I smug about it afterwards. Pamir. Krishna Mira (The Roof of the World, Vladimir Yerofeyev, 1927) was an absolutely fascinating journey through remote mountainous Kyrgyzstan, with just the right balance of intriguing domestic minutiae and awe-inspiring geographical grandeur. One series of intertitles pithily explained: “The women do all the chores … the men mostly do nothing … Occasionally they go hunting.” Actually, there was more to it than that. The men also whittle, weave, smoke opium, traverse perilous mountain passes and even perform very watchable partner dances in costume: the horse and the rider, the old man and the young girl, the fox and the marmot.
Photographed in regions where the air is so thin that water boils at 86 degrees Celsius or so cold that film itself can freeze, this can’t have been an easy documentary to shoot, but if offers a vision of another world, and now, I would guess, one that is almost entirely lost. I am sure that Günter Buchwald’s meticulous accompaniment on piano and violin was key to the success of this screening, providing a silk thread through the film’s essentially episodic structure.
From raw ethnography to dream-factory fantasy, with another parcel of early Euro westerns. These are rather slight things, but the devil, or rather the joy, is in the detail. Le Railway de la Mort (Jean Durand, 1912) was a kind of compact Greed – no, really, with a not dissimilar ending, augmented by a ferocious, red-tinted explosion. And before that, a series of train stunts that Hollywood, in any era, would have been proud of. In Italian western Nel Paese dell’Oro (1914) the star was not a gunslinger, but Toby the faithful dog, who helped to build barricades, did his level best to throttle the villain, and even rescued a lost tot from kidnappers and cold water, Rescued by Rover style. A canine who can.
Happily, I had the chance to return to Shima No Musume this lunchtime and what a pleasure it was. This melancholic drama is a little like a Japanese Borzage movie, with an unrepentantly sorrowful conclusion. Suffering is a woman’s lot, so just tough it out for the sake of your loved ones, be they living or dead. Sensitive performances, sharp dialogue, nuanced photography … such a surprise that it was one of four films rushed out to capitalise on a surprise hit single, and such a shame that the director, Hotei Nomura, a Japanese film pioneer, died a year later.
Louise Brooks is everywhere this year, not least here at the Giornate, where she adorns tote bags, mugs, programmes, T-shirts and even the festival office. The reason for the Louise love-in is that the Verdi welcomed a snippet of previously thought lost Brooks footage tonight – a few minutes of the Raymond Hatton-Wallace Beery comedy Now We’re in the Air, featuring Brooks as twins. I saw this footage at San Francisco earlier in the year. There is little to it, and Hatton and Beery are as unfunny a comic pairing as you may have already heard, but Brooks is beyond elegant, despite the material. And perhaps I did find it a little sparkier second time round.
It’s frustrating to see those two clutzes hogging the screentime while Brooksie stands idly by. At one point she is giving it her best pout-and-shout, basically rehearsing her Lulu as she rebels against her dodgy boss, but the scene is so poorly blocked she is hardly visible behind the villain in a top hat and cape. A certain kid of person would take this as a cue to rant about the limited opportunities for women in Hollywood both now and 90 years ago. I am that kind of person, but I’ll spare you.
However, if you’re familiar with Pandora’s Box, you may get a little thrill from her appearance in this film. A publicity still of Brooks in costume for this film is used in the scene where the Egyptian bids for Lulu in the casino boat. Far more wholesome in this context, but some would say about as funny.
Any day that closes with a Pola Negri film is a good day, and Sunday was a very good day. La Negri, my personal favourite silent movie star and the owner of the best peepers in the pictures, bar none, features in three films in the official Giornate programme this year (plus a schools matinee of The Wildcat). I knew artistic director Jay Weissberg was a fan, but well, consider me chuffed.
Tonight’s Negri film was Der Gelbe Schein (1918), often known as The Yellow Ticket. Negri plays a young medical student with a melodramatically plotted backstory that slowly unfurls as the film progresses. Suffice it to say that aside from some nice location shooting in Warsaw and the very striking image of a champagne glass full of coins in a brothel scene, this film lives and dies by Negri’s mesmeric performance. She radiates emotion, from those incredible eyes to her fluid posture, and even this early in her career she has the “star quality” that divides actors from icons. We saw the film tonight with a klezmer-tinged folky score from Alicia Svigals that worked very well, giving he melodrama enough room to breathe and softening the edges of a film in which structure runs the risk of overwhelming character.
Back to the beginning, though, and there is nothing like breathing fresh mountain air first thing in the morning. While Pordenone may not be as rural as all that, we were in the hills today, with A Norway Lass (1919), part of the Swedish Challenge strand. No one I spoke to denied that this film proceeded at a sedate, almost glacial pace, but all agreed also that it was astonishingly beautiful, romantic, inventive, charming and felt far more advanced than many 1919 movies. Two youngsters on neighbouring farms fall in love, but he, Thorgbjorn (Lars Hanson) is a hothead and so she, Synnöve (Karin Molander) must wait for him to grow and earn her love. Although, he’s clearly a good guy from the start, and sometimes it seemed as if the more passionate relationship was that between Synnöve and Thorgbjorn’s sister Ingrid (see below), especially when they danced in the high pasture. An excellent portrayal here of a slow-burning romance set in a place torn between puritanism and paganism, with contrasting Midsummer rituals. Also, a rather mischievous, gargoyle-faced young farmhand was busy persuading Thorgbjorn of the existence of a troll family in the valley (cue excellent inserted troll feasts) when he was the only goblin in sight and all too human at that.
The Brits are coming! Where have I heard that before? Hmmm… Anyway, it seems there is a UK invasion of Pordenone this year, with what looks like a bigger than usual home crowd in attendance already. And a British movie on the first day! After a journey that involved a plane, a train, an automobile, and a bus, I am part of that merry band. Jubilations, I even made it into the Verdi for the first film of the festival, which doesn’t always happen.
And that film was … 3 Days to Live (Tom Gibson, 1924). This was a pacey, if hokey melodrama, hinging on some awful foreign types manipulating the stock market in San Francisco and driving good men to suicide. Yes, it was not very 2017. It was more like 1917, or earlier, racial politics wise (see 1915’s The Cheat, for example), and definitely not a classic, though it had effective moments. A series of three closeups of a woman’s tapping feet, twisting hands and mobile face when she was waiting for her boyfriend to ask her father that question, was one. Another was a set of dissolves between empty rooms in an abandoned house. In such highlights we might detect the hand of youthful assistant director, editor and title writer Frank Capra. Or perhaps not – will we ever know?
I had to miss most of a package of early French Westerns. Yes, French Westerns. Just when you think you have seen it all … I did see Le Revolver Matrimonial (Jean Durand, 1912) thought. This was sweet ersatz Americana trifle in which Arizona Bill woos wealthy Maud (un homme in drag) and must lasso a sympathetic pastor to seal the union. There’s romance for you.
The Scapegrace (Edwin J Collins, 1913) finished the set. This was a British two-reeler though, and I expected Brian Aherne on his hobby horse a la Shooting Stars, but realism prevailed, to a point. This was a sprightly if slightly directionless drama in which black sheep Jack flees to the Yukon to escape his gambling debts and mend his ways. He finds, gold, a girl and forgiveness from his father so all’s well that ends, you know. And The Scapegrace was a Cricks studio production so that makes Croydon the wild frontier … I guess.
Picture the scene: a vast, gilded theatre in the West End, where the beautiful people of the silent film world are taking their seats, taking care that their rented diamonds, and their profiles, are displayed to their best advantage. The orchestra strikes up a tune, the lights are dimmed, and the audience is tipsy but expectant as I, your dear hostess, take to the stage in a floor-length pink satin gown, with a young Charles Farrell on my arm. After a few witty remarks, I turn my attention to a stack of golden envelopes on the lectern. Ladies and gentlemen, child stars and Rin Tin Tin, it’s time to announce the winners of the Silent London Poll of 2016, as voted for by the readers of this humble blog. Sorry you didn’t get an invite to the ceremony, or the bacchanalian after-party, but perhaps this roundup will do instead…
Best silent film DVD/Blu-ray release of 2016
If I were betting woman, I might have profited from this result. The winner of our first category is the BFI’s sumptuous release of Napoléon (1927), Abel Gance’s epic biopic. Honourable mention goes to the Kino/BFI Pioneers of African-American Cinema set, which many of you placed in the top spot.
Best silent film theatrical release of 2016
Quelle surprise! Napoléon romped home in this category too. A worthy winner, and I blow a kiss to those of you who gave up the best part of a day to experience this astonishing film – and to the friends and partners you coerced into joining you.
Best modern silent of 2016
Slim pickings for this category, but we have a winner, just about, in the form of The Red Turtle, Studio Ghibli’s desert island tale, which impressed a few of you on the festival circuit this year. It really is a very fine film, and the good news is that it will be released “proper” in UK cinemas in May 2017. You can read our London Film Festival review here.
The parade’s gone by for another year. The projector is empty, the Verdi is empty, even the Posta is empty. Yet again I can say watched a ridiculous number of films, but still missed many I wished I had seen. The Giornate was full to the brim with silent spectacles this year. And while it may be too early to speculate about Key Trends of the Weissberg Era, we can say the festival is in safe, and loving, hands. It was a vibrant schedule, crammed with exciting films. I had an especially good Giornate. How about you?
Today was always going to be bittersweet, but I offset that sharp tang of sadness with some great films and some enjoyably ludicrous ones, too. If we are going to remember this year as the year of big, beautiful movies (and I am at least), I enjoyed a fitting final day.
First question of the day: Who’s Guilty? Me, because I missed the final instalment in this diverting series, but I did arrive at Cinemazero in time for some Al Christie funnies. My eye was caught by a cross-dressing romp called Grandpa’s Girl (1924), but that wasn’t what I had stepped out for this morning.
I had a date with cinematic greatness, in the form of Ozu’s I was Born, But … (1932), the most sensitive and character-led of comedy dramas, shown in the Canon Revisited strand. Wonderful to see this projected, with Maud Nelissen’s ambitious and sensitive accompaniment. As a smart companion said: it’s a film about children but it’s really about all of us, at any age, at any time, in any place. This film is funny and wise and always beautiful: even when the camera is focused on the scruffy and mundane stuff of our scruffy and mundane lives, there is harmony and freshness. And oh, just make sure you never miss the chance to watch (and rewatch) this one. Promise? And the perky Momataro cartoon beforehand was a treat too.
Most people come to Pordenone in October for the silent films. Many come for the networking. Others for the music. Or the gelato, or the Aperol Spritz. But when those attractions pall, they say, you can also hop on a train and go to Venice. The idea horrifies me. Sure you could see St Mark’s Square, and meet a handsome gondolier. But think of the early cinema you would miss.
Still, even if you don’t take such a hard line as I do, Friday presented an innovative solution. Why leave town at all, when Venice can come to the Teatro Verdi? In honour of 120 years of cinema in Venice, a short programme of Lumière shorts offered us a leisurely drift down the canals. Then Max Reinhardt’s Eine Venezianische Nacht (1913) offered Commedia characters and whimsical comedy, as a nerd spends the night in the floating city and becomes infatuated with an ethereal bride, although sadly the narrative did not flow as smoothly as the canals. I really enjoyed the dream sequences, especially a neat setup whereby the local characters danced around the scholar’s bed, thanks to the magic of double exposure. But in this case the music, from a Trieste ensemble, didn’t seem to help.
And we deserved a little light sightseeing, after an emotional day, which began with a melodramatic double-bill. First, our customary voyage to the dark side of human nature in a Who’s Guilty? short featuring Anna Q as a jealous wife. Very little mystery in this one, but there was a novelty for the audience, as the Giornate’s two masterclass students took to the piano to share accompaniment duties. Jonathan Best and Meg Morley both did the drama proud, and we are very lucky to have both of these talented musicians playing in the UK.
Then one of my most highly anticipated screenings of the festival: the well-known stage drama Blue Jeans (1917), rendered for the screen by John H Collins and starring the wondrous Viola Dana as a tomboyish orphan caught up in a complex small-town intrigue. There was a lot of plot and back story to pack into the 84-minute running time. It is really the kind of film where you might draw a diagram on your ticket stub in the café afterwards to make head or tail of the marriages and feuds etc. Disturbing to some of us also, that in the local elections, our hero stood for the Conservatives and the villain for the Liberals – but of course the baddie won that battle. Anyhoo, this one is well worth seeking out, if only for the famous climax at the saw mill when said hero narrowly escapes a haircut. Viola Dana to the rescue! And Donald Sosin’s music was just right, with a recording of Joanna Seaton singing a song inspired by the play adding another layer of nuanced dramatic Americana to the screening.
The rest of the morning was a delightful patchwork, the kind the Giornate excels in. A programme of French comic shorts directed by Emile Cohl, accompanied by Stephen Horne in suitably bonkers fashion on a plethora of instruments, included some wild animation, and surreal live-action comedy. Hugely inventive and almost impossible to describe in this space, but do take the chance to see these charming oddities when you can. Hopefully with Mr Horne and his bag of tricks.
The final slot of the morning was crowned with two curios from the William Cameron Menzies strand. An early sound film, The Wizard’s Apprentice (1930) was a trick-photographed forerunner to the more famous Walt Disney version with matchstick brooms sloshing tiny tin buckets. And the four reels remaining of The Dove (1927) were hot-blooded comedy drama, with the gorgeous duo of Norma Talmadge and Gilbert Roland offset by the leering machinations of Noah Beery as the self-aggrandising local Caballero. Before both of those, we met our friend Momotaro the peach boy from yesterday, this time on an underwater adventure to assassinate a shark. Brilliant fun.
The evening’s show promised great things. Erotikon? Erotic con more like. Yes, this Mauritz Stiller comedy could happily have been about 20% funnier, and no, there were not erotic thrills to be had on screen. Not by 2016 standards, at least. The main disappointment for me was realising that I had actually seen it years ago and what I thought was a me-premiere was in fact a retread. But it is a fine film, after all. A professor of entomology and his flirty wife seem to be headed for the skids because of her “infidelity”, but perhaps missus is not as bad as she has been painted? Maybe she is in love? Maybe the doddery professor has moved his fancy piece into their homestead under her nose and on false pretences? This Swedish sex comedy is lightly sparkled like the local prosecco and and was pleasingly open-ended. I was silently screaming at the end “C’MON, what is the real deal with that niece?” at the end. A grownup comedy, if not a totally hilarious one, and we were delighted to have John Sweeney’s witty accompaniment for this tale of crossed wires and mistaken glances.
Was this the perfect Pordenone day? Very likely. Sunshine, coffee and great films in abundance. Plus, not one but two appearances from Ivan Mosjoukine. Giornate excellence achieved.
First things flipping first. Best. Who’s Guilty?. Ever. Anna and Tom are in love, a bit. Anna considers marriage but doesn’t come close. And the backdrop is a factory, which soon becomes embroiled in a workers’ dispute. Yes there is a strike! Much broader, bolder drama here, with nice location shooting and some sharply composed long shots. if Eisenstein had made potboilers. Maybe. And before the morning’s main event, a now-obligatory trip to an ersatz pre-revolutionary Russia with Ivan Mosjoukine in Der Adjutant des Zaren, a charming Japanese animation about a boy grown from a peach who became gentle and strong – but mostly badass enough to slay a shedload of ogres.
This morning also featured a quartet of City Symphonies to delight the eyes. I especially liked a very elegantly shot look at the reconstruction of Tokyo in 1929 (I know!), Fukko Teito Shinfoni and a zoom up Chicago’s main drag in Halsted Street (1934). A tour of Belgrade was pretty enough but lacked direction and so outstayed its welcome. I am very fond of these films though, and look forward to more. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016: Pordenone post No 6→
“It’s Christie Cristo day,” quoth a witty fellow Pordenaut today. And that was true – we were expecting more Al Christie comedies and Henri Fescourt’s lavish Monte-Cristo (1929) too. It also neatly encompasses the range of material one can expect from 14-odd hours in the Verdi. Slapstick comedy to prestige literary adaptations – plus today we had drama, poetry, newsreels, satire, political advertising and more … But it’s all that obscure niche they call silent cinema, right?
Then again, my day began, and ended, with the Napoleonic era. Tonight’s epic screening, a marathon treat we have come to expect on a Wednesday in Pordenone, was the aforementioned adaptation of The Count of Monte-Cristo, running at almost four hours, and as lavish as you please. It was, as Lenny Borger promised, “the full Monte”. Comparisons were inevitable with last year’s Les Misérables event – this film was less picturesque, less self-consciously serious, but just as vivid and awe-inspiring, with greater pace and suspense. The restoration was nicely done, but Monte-Cristo was not the living oil-painting we saw in 2015 – this was dynamic monochrome, boosted with a few tints, with a handful of showy camera movements, deep and pointed shadows, wicked interior lighting effects and some truly monumental sets. A feast for the eyes, but in a more classically cinematic way.
Did anyone ever tell you to beware of loose women in tight corsets? Tuesday at the Giornate was a tale of two Nanas: Jean Renoir’s acclaimed 1926 adaptation of the Emile Zola novel played in the afternoon, but in the morning we saw a recently rediscovered Italian version, starring noted diva Tilde Kassay. The Verdi audience are accustomed to beautiful temptresses by this point, so we were well judged to decided who wore it best…
First, here’s what I didn’t see. One British-Soviet curio, Three Live Ghosts, which I saw last year in Leicester and wrote about here. I also ducked out of The Guns of Loos, having seen it on the same occasion, and then a few weeks back at the BFI too. I wimped out of the morning’s western marathon too, after a couple of films. Early westerns don’t always thrill me, but in this case I had some work to do instead. And it seems that I missed out on a very impressive rattlesnake. Ah well, snakes and ladders. I have a less impressive reason for missing the last film of the day, but I stand by it: good wine, good company, great gossip.
However, nothing can tear me away from my Who’s Guilty? morning treats, which have me more hooked than any soap opera. Yet again Anna Q Nilsson got married in haste (to the always-appealing, imp-faced Tom Moore, the son of the newspaper editor investigating her senator father’s corrupt affairs) and repented in haste too, as a lawsuit for abduction revealed a harsh truth about her childhood that led her straight to the brink. The brink of the lake that is. Thanks A Trial of Souls (1916) for that early morning anguish. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016: Pordenone post No 4→
On a blissfully sunny Monday in the town we’d really rather you didn’t call “Porders” we saw films which taught us that money makes the world go round, and films that transported us to the far side of the globe. Come take a trip …
The Who’s Guilty? strand continues to entertain – we’re all hooked. Although I was worried that Anna Q Nilsson kept getting married and kept suffering as a result and would never learn. A case in point was today’s first film, the second reel of Sowing the Wind (1916). However, things took a turn for the modern in Beyond Recall (1916) as an extravagantly costumed Anna Q took a job (really!) in the District Attorney’s office and did her very best to save the life of Tom Moore, wrongly accused on circumstantial evidence of murdering his girlfriend. The DA ignored her arguments, so unfortunate Moore was sent to the chair, grimly illustrating some still-relevant troubles with sexism in the workplace and the fate of poor people in the justice system. Anna Q can’t catch a break.
Ever fallen in love with a film you shouldn’t have fallen in love with? I did, tonight, I must confess. I am utterly besotted with a Polish silent that isn’t a silent at all, really, but a musical of sorts that has long since parted company with its Vitaphone discs. What remains of Janko the Musician (Janko Muzykant, 1930) is a very poignant film, with easy charm and visual lyricism.
Young Janko is a peasant boy in rural Poland, and although he is a gifted musician, he hasn’t the funds to develop his talent, or even practise it. His homemade rustic violin is ingenious, but far from sufficient. In fact, for a young man of his class, artistic endeavour is so far off-limits that he is criminalised for his love of music, which destroys his poor mother and nearly breaks him. Even when it seems that he has used his talent to transcend these social divides, his past catches up with him.
Janko is played by two strikingly handsome actors, Stefan Rogulski and Witold Conti, and the supporting cast, notably his two partners in demi-crime in the second half of the film are excellent. Without the sound discs, it is still very easy to follow the film, as the dialogue was always intended to be carried by the intertitles, but we are left with longish sequences when Janko plays, or others sing. To fill these silences, we had a very sympathetic live (improvised?) score from Günter Buchwald, Frank Bockius and Romano Tadesco, which left the Verdi every bit as spellbound as the crowds who gathered to hear Janko play. The first third of the film is especially successful, and the first two-thirds very good indeed. If it felt slower in that last third it is because we have left Janko’s natural habitat and his essential conflicts behind. This film is at its best in the countryside, and wherever people gather, not in high-class drawing rooms and court offices. It was also 35 minutes longer that advertised, so I guess it was actually slow, but I didn’t hear anyone complaining about that. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016: Pordenone post No 2→
You don’t have to be a Giornate regular to know that everything old is new again … but it helps. So, as the Pordenone Silent Film Festival celebrates its 35th birthday, we welcome a new era, with Jay Weissberg taking over as director. A change of course or more of the same? There is only one way to find out …
Greta Garbo is immortal, and an opening night gala featuring a lush Carl Davis score for a classic Hollywood silent feels like a timeless choice also. Tonight’s screening of the shamelessly romantic The Mysterious Lady (1928) ticked all the boxes for a wandering Cinemutophile yearning for a home from home in northern Italy. It is a beautiful film, just the right side of presposterous, with Greta Garbo as a Russian super-spy seducing Austrian officer Conrad Nagel and falling in love in the process. How inconvenient, especially for her lecherous boss, Boris, played by Gustav von Seyffertitz. The score, conducted by the maestro himself, was a Hollywood number through and through – thrilling to the too-perfect romance between the leads and unabashedly ramping up the intrigue. Touching too, that one of my all-time favourite silent films, A Propos de Nice (1930), played before the main feature in a gesture of sympathy and solidarity with the the people of the French Riviera, who suffered a terrible attack earlier in the year. It looked sublime on the Verdi screen, needless to say, and especially so with John Sweeney’s sparkling accompaniment
At the end of life death is a departure; but at life’s beginning a departure is a death – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Back home, when they ask me what I saw at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, I will have to confess that yes, indeed, I did see a woman tied to the train tracks this year. All their suspicions will be confirmed, although you and I will know that the scene in question was part of Kinokariera Zvonaria (A Bell-Ringer’s Film Career, 1927), a Russian spoof of the movie business. But if they don’t know that women being tied to the train tracks isn’t really a silent cinema staple, then they may not be familiar with Soviet comedy. Which I would say is a shame, although my favourite of this strand this year remains Dva Druga, Model I Poodruga. This breezy two-reeler was a sweet thing, with a reluctant star being caught in the snare of a travelling film company, whose motto was the less-than-inspiring: “Don’t waste film. Be economical.” A shocking waste of film that closes the movie elicited groans from the audience in Cinemazero – talk about singing to the choir.
KINOKARIERA ZVORNAIA (URSS 1927). Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow
The feature-length comedy on Saturday morning was less successful for me – mostly because it was quite hard to follow. In Serotsa I Dollary (Hearts and Dollars, 1924), mistaken identities complicated the central gag of a well-to-do American girl making her way in Russia. Familiar “types” from Soviet comedy abounded, but I couldn’t quite key in to this one, sadly.
We saw more westerners adrift in eastern parts with a film only recently made available again: Tod Browning’s opium-trade drama Drifting (1923). Priscilla Dean plays Cassie, the “poppy princess”, a opium dealer fallen on hard times in China, no doubt partly because her companion Molly has been getting high on the supply. Wallace Beery is her accomplice-cum-rival. Matt Moore is the American captain sent to China to put an end to the drugs trade, and as so often is the case, Anna May Wong is criminally underused as a local girl setting her cap at him. Set down on paper this looks like fiery stuff, and it is in parts, but the original story (in which Cassie has an even older career on the side) has been toned down, and the presentation of what remains is rather coy. There is an unexpected role for a cute tot, a small boy who belongs to an unseen missionary family, and it’s all very smartly shot and brightly tinted. Not everyone was as keen as I was on this one, but hey, we all get to be an outlier sometimes. Drifting was elevated hugely also by a superb accompaniment by Stephen Horne, who brilliantly caught the atmosphere of revolt threatened by the locals banging “sinister and solemn” drums in the background.
We travelled way out west again after lunch, for another assignation with Victor Fleming. After a tantalising trailer for the lost film The Way of All Flesh, starring Emil Jannings, we were spoiled with a screening of Wolf Song (1929). This movie, a red-blooded western romance between trapper Sam (Gary Cooper) and a young Mexican woman called Lola (Lupe Vélez) was powerful stuff. Sam is torn between the lure of the mountain trail and his love for Lola, between the call of the “wolf song” and marital bliss. But what bliss! This is the kind of movie that reminds you that all silent cinema is effectively pre-code. The affair between the two leads is passionate, and there is enough steamy eye contact, questionable imagery and plimming bosoms to mist up your spectacles before you swoon at the sheer beauty of it. Cooper and Vélez are simply gorgeous leads, and if you haven’t heard about Cooper’s nude bathing scene in this film, well that would explain why you weren’t at the Giornate today. Seriously, though, this is the sort of film that reveals exactly why Hollywood was called a dream factory – it’s a collective fantasy, played out 10ft tall.Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 8→
Laughter is sunshine, it chases winter from the human face – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Sometimes, a seven-hour epic will come along to sweep you off your feet. At other times, 18 minutes will do the same job, or even just a few seconds. Friday at the Giornate was Laurel and Hardy’s day and no mistaking. The happy discovery of the missing reel of The Battle of the Century (1927) has been dominating the runup to the festival, and with good reason. The house was full for the evening screening, one of the first in the world, of the nearly restored, almost complete two-reel comedy. When I say full, yours truly was perched in the gods, nearly touching the ceiling. But if I was giddy, it was with excitement, and as Battle unspooled with its restorer, Serge Bromberg at the piano keys, we all felt a little thrill I’ll bet. The central pie fight sequence is slapstick gold – expertly orchestrated, constantly inventive and teasing us with the escalating violence. So often a group are poised with pies in hands … we know another splat is on its way, but we don’t know where it will come from. And because of that, seeing it in proper context, as a counterpoint to the damp squib boxing match in the first reel, was hugely satisfactory. The pie fight’s no longer a scene, but part of a real movie, albeit one with one sequence still missing.
And with that, Stan and Ollie were gone. To be replaced by something else entirely. Days don’t tend to have themes here at Pordenone, The programme is far too wide-ranging and eccentric for that. But Friday, I like to think, was also western day – with a feminine twist.
The morning dawned with cowboys – and what you might call cowgirls too. These short movies from the 1910s were equal-opportunity adventures, with women exploring the west along with their men. Of the few I saw, I most liked How States are Made (1912), in which a pioneer family must lay stake to their plot in the Cherokee Land Rush, but with hubby out of action due to a gunshot wound, it’s up to the missus (Anne Schaeffer) to ride west and beat their rivals in the big land rush.
A double-bill (of sorts) of Victor Fleming westerns followed, and picked up the theme too. After a snippet of The Call of the Canyon (1923) in which young Carley must decide whether to follow her man out of the city and into the frontier land, we were treated to To the Last Man (1923), which was a real triumph. This film is based on a novel, which was based on a real family rivalry, a blood feud no less, which claimed several lives. In the fictional version at least, a youngster from each family have fallen in love, Romeo and Juliet style. As the two lovers, Richard Dix was a solid and handsome hero, and Lois Wilson was fantastic as young Ellen, seemingly the only woman for miles and miles around, whose reputation was cruelly slandered as a result. Lushly shot by James Wong Howe, with plenty of ferocious action (which Stephen Horne wrung the most out of), this was a winner from beginning to end. Except for one thing: this was a Russian print, and so were the intertitles, which means we now had third-hand versions of each line, which were often baffling, and sometimes incomprehensible. “And then your kisses were come-at-able,” for instance. This was really a minor inconvenience, but added a sour note to what would otherwise have been a sweet, sweet movie.Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 7→
This, too, is history – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
You can blame it on too much caffé espresso, or Douglas Fairbanks withdrawal, or the collective post-Les Mis comedown. Whatever the reason, I saw two comedies today that I could only just follow, and which just occasionally made me laugh. If I tell you they were Soviet comedies, you might jump to a conclusion. But trust me, I have form in this area – I normally laughalonga-Lenin.
Tonight’s evening screening was Gosudarstvennyi Chinovnik (The State Official, 1931), a cheeky caper about a faceless state underling tempted by the chance to pilfer a suitcase of roubles for him and his missus and their young daughter. I suspect it is gentlest of comedy anyway, but with a propagandistic framing story about renovating the rolling stock on either end of it, it truly is, as I was warned, not a “comedy-comedy”.
Rating higher on the laughometer but lower on comprehensibility for my poor failing brain was Krupnaia Nepriyatnost (Big Trouble, 1930), in which the culture clash between old and new in a provincial village is exemplified by, at first, the rivalry between old-style carriages and imported American cars. The scene thus laid, the real set-to involves a mixup of of speakers at local events: the director of the new arts centre rocks up to the church, and the priest appears to address the culture vultures. Horror, and then an “exchange of hostages” ensues. This was much brighter, with vivid casting, compositions that took us by surprise and a real sense of pace and energy. Plus, inventive musical accompaniment courtesy of a Stephen Horne and Donald Sosin collaboration. We were still a little flummoxed though. The same director as Dva Druga, Model I Poodrugaand a similar sense of fun, but not as successful.
Where the telescope ends the microscope begins, and which has the wider vision? – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
You might be forgiven for thinking there was only one show in town today – the epic screening of Henri Fescourt’s Les Misérables. But not only were there several films on offer beforehand, there were schedule clashes – yes, clashes – meaning that I had to make some painful decisions. I can’t bear to tell you what I missed (“Here’s what you could have won,” as Jim Bowen would say), but this is what I saw before my voyage to Paris, when I took a detour to Cinemazero.
The morning began a little coldly with a sedate documentary about Gaston Méliès, brother of the more famous Georges, and his travels around the globe with a movie crew. Undoubtedly this is a fascinating topic – Gaston was an adventurous soul who travelled far and wide, making both fiction and documentary films, and occasionally hybrid affairs too. Wherever he went – Tahiti, Cambodia, Australia, New Zealand – he sought out the real locals, and cast these non-professional actors in dramatic roles. Back when so many people in the States were relying on blackface, as we have seen, Gaston sought a greater diversity and authenticity. A very interesting subject, but this film, Gaston Méliès and the Wandering Star Company (2015), was not full of the same enthusiasm as its protagonist. I wanted to know more – how he developed such wanderlust, how the films were received, how the communities he entered related to cinema after he left and whether all this jaunting about contributed to his brother’s financial ruin.
If anyone can raise the tempo it’s our British sweetheart Betty Balfour, and she starred in a new rediscovery, a German-UK-Sweden co-production that gives euro-puddings a good name. Would they were all as sweet. The plot was as intricate as the lovely lace gowns Betty was so fond of, but to be brief Flickorna Gyurkovics (A Sister of Six, 1926) is a comedy of repeated mistaken identities all coming between Balfour and her handsome archduke and a happy-ever-after. It’s mischievously funny, and wickedly shot too, being photographed by none other than Carl Hoffman. Balfour is brilliant, my own dear favourite Karin Swanström has a small role and there’s even a little monkey, followed around by Hoffman with a handheld camera. Such delightful touches abounded – for example, a POV shot of photograph of Balfour and her sisters, seen through a haze of cigarette smoke animated itself, as the girls wriggled and giggled. A real treat, even if it is nigh-on unsummarisable.
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”.Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 4→
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.