Monthly Archives: October 2015

Day Five at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival

Where Tuesday offered almost too many short films to mention, Wednesday was quite another ball game as I only managed to see three films. It does however bear pointing out that one of them happened to be a six hour silent version of Les Miserables, so it’s not as if I’m shirking my film-watching duties while I’m here.

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Before I get to the colossus in the schedule, a brief mention has to go to the other two titles, or rather one feature and one collection that I managed to encounter today. Morning started with the deliriously wonderful Swedish comedy Flickorna Gyurkovics, or A Sister of Six to take the peculiar English title for the film. A dizzying tale of betrothals and missed engagements, the young lovelorn cast bounced between fighting for the affections of the opposite sex, only to lose interest completely once the feeling was requited. This incredibly tightly woven farce demanded the audience’s complete and utter attention, as more than a few gags set up in the first reel only gave their pay-off come the final act. For this half-British/half-Swedish audience member there was a subtle thrill in seeing the British comic actress Betty Balfour hold her own in the Swedish production, although initially I was puzzled why the film had a Hungarian setting, of all things. “Oh that’s because it was based on a Hungarian play!” a Danish friend pointed out “The Danes and the Swedes were crazy for Hungarian stage comedies in the 1920s.” Funny indeed how trends in comedy and drama come and go with the ages, as I cannot say the Hungarian influence lingers any longer on Nordic shores. Or maybe our modern concept of Scandinavian humour actually has it’s roots in the Magyar tradition. Who knows? There’s a research project in there somewhere no doubt.

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The second collection was a very peculiar programme of incredibly short and fragmentary titles from the Italian quick-change artist Leopold Fregoli. The art of the quick-change is not as popular in the UK as it still proves to be in continetal Europe, and for the uninitiated it can briefly be described as the trick of changing costume on stage dozens of times, going from one improbable get up to another in a matter of seconds. As in ten seconds of less to be precise. The Italian quick-change superstar Arturo Brachetti was in town especially for the show, and while his status was lost on most (but not all) Brits, the buzz among the locals made clear that this was a very special appearance. Think of him as a celebrity on par with Derren Brown, and we might be approaching an equivalent strata of star veneration. Either ways, he gave charming history of the original Italian quick-change mastermind, which served as a brilliant briefing before a very scatter-gun and peculiar programme of films. Almost all from pre-1900, these were fragmentary clips, most barely more than 30 seconds, and showed Fregoli developing ideas, workshopping skits, generally just trying out things in front of the camera. Very few had a punchline, even fewer had a complete narrative as such, but it was a fascinating insight into how the master worked, and a fine example of how stars of the stage actively had to adapt their shows for the new phenomenon of cinema.

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And finally we get to the epic film screening, the hump of the festival week which had been anticipated with equal parts glee and dread, or so I sensed when asking around in the last few days. As someone who has tacitly managed to dodge Les Miserable in all it’s forms, thanks in great part to Mr Lloyd Webber et co, I was eager to see an unexpurgated version of the story. Clocking in at six and a half hours, or eight if you include breaks, this viewing experience loomed large as a test of stamina more than anything else. Yet in the moment, the six and a half hour moment that is, the film thundered along at a pace which rarely dragged or felt overly languid. There really is a truism in the point that a terrible film of ten minutes can drag for a neverending eternity, whereas a brilliant film of seven hours can pass in the proverbial blinking of an eye.

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Split across four chapters, this grand adaptation from 1925 shows French director Henri Fescourt in his prime. Coming from a long history of self-consciously worthy silent stage to screen adaptations in the long running Film d’Art series, this version of Les Miserable felt liberated from having to justify it’s existence in the face of more established art forms. It manages to be uniquely cinematic, not with the visual fireworks of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, but rather in it’s ability to capture wonderfully humane performances. Gabriel Gabrio as Jean Valjean was a towering presence on screen, and his redemptive arc, and gradual aging were shown in a convincing way. Jean Toulout as Javert was also superb, at times overpowered by some of the mightiest brows and mutton chops I’ve seen in a long time. The climax of his personal crisis, and collapse of his moral world was incredibly striking, with extreme close-ups capturing a bristling performance.

However the truly noteworthy performance of the evening was that of accompanist Neil Brand, who followed the whole film in sensitive and grand fashion for the whole duration. I could barely imagine typing on a keyboard for six hours flat, so how the virtuoso pianist managed to keep pace with the film, to underscore the emotional performances without melodrama, while also driving the narrative forward, is a feat of tremendous skill and talent. Having heard more than one of his musical peers rave about his performance after the show, I think their claim that his was a seminal silent event is no great exaggeration. An unforgettable musical accompaniment from a redoubtable pianist for a epic yet utterly humane film. It rarely gets much better than that.

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Day Four at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival

While I may have met the new day with news that I missed a subtly brilliant film in the midnight slot, I was more than relieved to be bright eyed and bushy-tailed for the 9am programme of Girls Will Be Boys. Curated by Laura Horak, the preeminent scholar on female-to-male cross-dressing in silent cinema, the programme included six quite brilliant one-reelers that put paid to the idea that Marlene Dietrich might have been first to the screen in the male garb department. The motivations for the cross-dressing could be both external to the narrative (borrow the theatrical tradition of casting small girls as small boys, appear more traditional/respectable as a result) or wholly baked into the story itself (get the job done by dressing as a man, in one example masquerading as Union soliders, in another going incognito to get a male-only role on a ranch kitchen). Humour was at the heart of all these reversals, and while the test of gender performativity could be laughable in its own right (can a woman really handle a cigar?) there was a brilliant moment in Making a Man of Her when an impromptu sparring match ends in horror as a hat gets knocked off, and OH NO the cowboy has been knocking the shit out of a woman all this time! From swinging blows to grovelling deference in the dropping of a hat.

The absolutely highlight of this brief programme was however What’s the World Coming To, a surreal science fiction comedy which posited a world where the ‘men have become more like women, and the women more like men’, which is to say the genders had effectively been inverted. But to an absurdly exaggerated degree, with the blushing groom barely able function without bursting into an emotional heap, and the women constantly swaggering around town, and managing cigars without a moments hesitation. A high paced and highly physical slapstick affair, the film barely gave you enough time to pick apart the gender jokes and included more than a few subtle inferences baked into the comedy. One rather jokey title card asking if any person objected to a marriage on the ‘grounds of inter-state eugenics laws’ was an oddly charged note, a nod to a time in history when anxieties over women’s coming suffrage clashed with a new public rhetoric of race and genetics. A flash of Brave New World a good few years before that took form.

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Otherwise my Tuesday viewing schedule was dominated by early cinema, which is to say shorter titles from before the first world war, and being a huge fan of these earliest years I was more than in my element. A programme of colour shorts from the Norwegian National Library in particular stood out, starting as it did with women modelling the latest Parisian fashions. Films of women wearing rather extraordinary hats might not sound like a title to set the world on fire, but the distinction in this regard was that the whole programme featured films which had been meticulously hand-painted on their original release. Every reel of every film, hand-painted or stencilled coloured by an army of women, going carefully from frame to frame. The labour involved is staggering to imagine, and the result is a series of films which shimmer with exaggerated primary colours. Some films had been immaculately coloured, others looked a bit slap-dash, like an enthusiastic five-year-old’s colouring book come to life. The effect can be amazing in it’s own right, and while the series of films from the Parisian zoo used neither the right colours, nor stuck within the lines, the morphing lines of brown elephants and orange kangaroos had a bizarre and almost impressionistic quality.

Tucked among this programme of colour films was also a short called the Princess and the Frog, which contrary to expectations mostly focused on a lithe contortionist in extremely tight frog costume. Almost impossible to explain, it was basically a man tying himself in knots in a manner you could possibly construe as sexual. Or not. It was after all just a man in a costume, but that’s not quite how everyone saw it.

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Further to this there was also a programme of shorts from the Coleccion Sagarminaga held by the Filmoteca Espanola, which started off on a troubling note. When a programme of early films starts on a series of parades there is always a feeling of unease that this may in fact be an hour and a half programme of nothing but marching troops. The festival has had form on this front in the past, and more than a few audience members quickly stirred after two films, thinking they were getting out while the going was good. Alas for them the programme quite quickly got away from the endless marching, and instead included a mixed retinue of visual magicians, bull fights, cycling clowns, acrobats, short vaudeville skits, and ending on rather a bleak note of a British fox hunt. Dating from 1906 this film may have a claim to being the oldest surviving film of a fox hunt, and it did not shy away from showing the grim realities of the blood-sport. I almost felt sorry for the film’s accompanist, who had cheerily been keeping an upbeat note throughout the chase itself, and then when it cut to scene of a fox corpse being thrown to a pack of dogs the pianist was left hanging without anywhere to musically go. How do you score a fox being ripped apart in relatively graphic detail? Silence was about the only escape, and that’s where the film left the audience in an otherwise quite light and entertaining programme.

Beyond these short titles the stand out title of the day was a recent documentary of all things, a film called Cinema: a Public Affair, which concerned the troubled history of the Russian Musey Kino, the cinema museum in Moscow. Having been evicted and harried, and homeless for close to a decade, the museum hit the headlines last year when it’s passionate director/champion/founder Naum Kleiman was gazzumped by a new state appointed head, who immediately started picking apart the institute. Kleiman resigned formally a few months later, and not long after that all 22 of the museum’s staff submitted their collective resignation in protest at the destructive new leadership which they felt had no grasp of curatorship, or the importance of protecting the museum’s collections. Letters of concern flooded in from archives, filmmakers, and cineastes around the world, and the future of the Musey Kino remains up in air.

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Having documented the years leading up to this meltdown, Cinema: a Public Affair is a candid insight into the foundation of this temple of cinema, the curatorial team which have kept the institution alive, as well as the bureaucratic clamp down which has squeezed the museum almost out of existence. Kleiman takes centre stage and speaks with wonderful eloquence about cinema, and how it has affected his life, and the importance of protecting our shared film heritage. Alongside him the team at Musey Kino, who eventually resigned their posts, talk with brilliant passion and insight about cinema as well, and the overall effect is a stirring cri de couer for recognising and protecting our shared past.

Day Three at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival

Silence is golden. At least at two in the morning it is. Sadly my neighbours had a different point of view, and returning at two they decided that MTV at the loudest possible volume was just what the doctor ordered. To the local trio’s credit, and to give you a sense of quite how wafer-thin the walls of my guesthouse  are, they did lower the volume of their TV after I sat up in my bed and loudly shushed them. The sleep that did eventually follow was far from deep, and I mention this only as a broken night can have a real wipeout effect, especially when you’re trying to watch silent films. Monday as such weighed heavy with the veil of certain exhaustion.

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Not that the programme was any worse for that, as two rather distinct shows gave the notion of silence in cinema a run for it’s money. The first was a collection of German Tonbilder, a short programme of recorded songs and recitals from cinema’s first decade. From operettas to cheery drinking songs, these titles were created by separately recording the song, and then having very same singer performing and miming the song live on camera. A bit like Top of the Pops, if you will. Many of the films were known, but only recently were German archivists able to match extant discs with the surviving films, and having meticulously synced up the two as far as possible the result is really quite uncanny. That most of the songs seemed to revolve around boudoirs, sex work, and drinking didn’t hurt either.

The second much grander sonic experience of the day was the much vaunted Japanese Benshi show in the evening. While almost all the earliest films shows across the globe regularly relied on a real-life narrator or lecturer, the tradition of having a living breathing person standing alongside the screen faded away as narratives became more complex and as the art of intertitles grew into maturity. Except in Japan, where the discipline and traditions of the film-explainer became enshrined in the role of the Benshi. Sometimes they would just read the intertitles and elaborate on them, sometimes if the film had foreign intertitles they might just make up the whole thing as they went along. Others would completely undermine the film, or perhaps go off topic, or indeed go on topic, pretending the film was about a recent news story. The discipline grew and changed throughout the silent era, and sound was late coming to Japan as the Benshis repeatedly went on strike against the technology that would render them useless.

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The tradition of the Japanese narrator would now be completely extinct were it not for the efforts of a very small cadre of historians and performers who have chronicled this discipline, and who also keep it alive giving performances to Japanese silent films. The Pordenone silent film festival has turned into a regular showcase for this historic art, and Monday night offered a grand performance of the film Chuji Tabinikki accompanied by the Benshi Ichiro Kataoka, as well as a percussionist, a pianist, and a fellow on the traditional guitar-like Shamisen. Some Benshi shows I have seen in the past have been so elaborate and involved that they obscured more than they enlightened the film, but not so with last night’s performance from Kataoka-san and the Otowaza Ensemble. In a historic film that involved bandits, police, a lot of stern looks, a fair amount of sword waving, the subtle interjections from musicians, and the wavering tones of the Benshi, explaining, miming, and generally making the grunts and wheezes seen on screen brought the film to life in a strange manner. Overall I was grateful for any kind guidance in a narrative which didn’t make any concessions for those uninitiated to Japenese feudal society. There is a strange comfort of coming out of a film like this and realising that you were far from alone in wondering what the hell was going on.

A strangely dissonant moment was however coming out of a 1914 adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. “Wasn’t that brilliant?” “What a performance from Sam Lucas as Uncle Tom!” “How about the photography in that, hey?” was the wider chorus I met, but personally I felt the film left no lasting impression at all. A grounded performance from Sam Lucas certainly did stand out when set against the histrionics of the rest of the cast, and notable as a performance from an African-American surrounded by several white actors in black face. Yet the film struck me as a curiosity more than a lesser masterpiece. But that is an oblique pleasure of the festival, as you never can be sure of any critical consensus as you stumble out of the theatre. One person’s treasure inevitably turns out to be a snooze-fest for the other, and more than a few wines have been spent trying to work out exactly how we ended up at such critical distant poles. It’s tough work I tell you.

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That said most folks I met did concur that Dva Druga, Model i Pordruga was a surprisingly light and charming Soviet comedy. Translating roughly as Two Friends, a Model, and a Girlfriend the internet-meme minded among you might be making lather lewd insinuations at this point, but the titular model turned out to be a prototype for a crate-making machine. The two buddies spend much time knocking heads on creating a device which will revolutionise production in the soap factory they work in, and it is with great worry that a local crate-manufacturer/capitalist views their progress. “With this technology we will destroy Capitalism!” read one enthusiastic title, and of course the arch-villain crate-making industrialist sets out to scupper their plans every step of the way. More than a bit mad-cap, slap-dash and knock-about, Dva Druga, Model i Pordruga was a welcome mid-morning break, and while not on the side-splitting end of the comedy scale, it certain did amuse.

Coming to the end of what felt like an incredibly long day I decided to sacrifice the near-midnight screening of Der Tunnel for an early night. It can’t be that good I thought, only to be regaled by my Finnish friend Jaakko the next morning of what a surprisingly treat it was. They build a tunnel between France and New Jersey. No great characterisations, he says, but really striking visuals, a really stirring story. Well you win some you loose some. Hopefully the next film I choose to cut won’t be the universal highlight of the festival, but heaven knows that has happened before.

Day Two at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival

‘Primitive’ was a word that got thrown around a lot more than I was expecting on the second day of the Gironate. In part it came during the late evening screening of the Douglas Fairbanks farce Mollycoddle, which quite merrily praised and damned the Native Americans of the painted desert for outwitting the dumb out-of-towners, despite being so crushingly primitive in their ways. Gosh isn’t the line between civilised and primitive man so thin, the film quipped, without actually nailing its colours to mast as to whether it’s ‘civilisation’ who is ahead of itself, or indeed it is the ‘primitives’ we underestimate at our peril. Either ways it was a bit much for me to mentally unpack as the last reel of the film unspooled around the midnight hour.

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The second engagement of the less than charming ‘primitive’ adjective came during the antiquated film history documentary Thirty Years of Motion Pictures. Released by coalition of American Film lobbying bodies as a look back on film’s brief history in 1927, it did a fine job of getting more than a few key facts quite sharply wrong, while at the same time driving home it’s own tidy pro-American agenda. If you took them at their word you’d have thought Thomas Edison and George Eastman had the whole invention of cinema thing wrapped up, with a concession by the film, that of course, the Lumieres in Paris, and Robert Paul in London, just happened to do awfully similar things in other corners of the world.

But in it’s sweeping remit the film history lesson did quite happily signpost some examples from cinemas ‘primitive’ days. A ‘simple’ adventure here, a ‘dumb’ chase there, and a ‘primitive’ projector over there. For me the tone of the lecture conjured up the absurd image of Neanderthals hammering away at relatively complex early cameras and projectors, while occasionally taking a break from their neolithic habits to crank the handle on some dumb melodrama. The point being that, distant as the world of the past may seem to modern eyes, the evolution of cinema, where every iteration of the past is seen as a step towards the accomplished and complete cinema of today does rather presuppose that the filmic cavemen and women of our Victorian/Edwardian past were just scratching at the wall on their way to, well, Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon 3D? The word primitive in this context really is quite toxic, and the fact it had the same tang of condescension in 1927 as it does today was interesting to see, especially in an early documentary which all the same had the luxury of being so close to this increasingly forgotten period of time.

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Fortunately we did also get a reprieve before the history lesson in the form of Der Marchenwald – ein schattenspiel, a German fairytale told in a recreated shadowplay. Instead of shadow puppets, real actors were recorded acting in outlined profile, an almost abstracted form of 2D which gave their performances the look and feel of an animated film. While the story itself was not the clearist, possibly assuming the audience would already know the tale, the striking appearance of the film was really quite uncanny, and its shimmering style certainly lingers well beyond it’s brief running time.

Alongside the farce of Douglas Fairbanks in Mollycoddle, I also had the immense pleasure of seeing him behave like an absolute dork in the comedy of superstition and errors, When Clouds Roll By. Douglas is a man obsessed with superstition to the point of sheer compulsion, and what should happen when he has the good fortune of bumping into a charming young lady who is just as committed to the avoidance of ladders, cats, and opal rings, of all things? A burgeoning romance of course, with earlier suitors to be contended with, dedication proven with classic Fairbank acrobatics, and a general escalation of calumny. Going from four acts set in the big smoke, I don’t think anyone could have predicted the ending which saw Fairbanks and lover getting married on top of a church floating in the middle of a flooded valley. You can’t beat an imminently bursting dam to ratchet up tension in the final reel, and heaven knows When Clouds Roll by delivered in daft spades for it’s closer.
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A final mention goes to the beautiful new restoration of L’Inhumaine, a lavish futurist fantasy which preempted Metropolis in some of its visuals and arguably  in some its key themes and plot points. An adored female idol, who inspires crowds and stirs revolution, whose genius is captured and transposed by a mad scientist, all against the backdrop of highly abstracted form of super-modernist architecture and set design? This is familiar ground, but where Metropolis‘ characters are human, the figures in the aptly named L’Inhumaine were distant and driven by strangely opaque desires. The clue is in the title, and this frosty behaviour is after all a major point in the film, but that made it no easier to get onboard with the film itself. Quite a visual experience, and cut together in a striking and aptly futurist fashion, but still too distant to fully carry me through to the world it had created for itself.

A long and exhausting day all told, with surprises along the way. Hopefully day three will keep things a little less ‘primitive’ and a bit more, well, humane perhaps?
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Day One at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival

There aren’t many regular fixtures in the silent film calendar, but the Pordenone Silent Film Festival is the big one that sees stummfilm fans from around the world bending over backwards to get there. Having first attended the festival back in 2007,  I’ve been back almost every year since, with an unnerving regularity that has non-silent film friends asking “what, you’re going back to Italy again?” For the converted the discussion revolves solely whether you will be going, and I know one good friend who, without batting an eyelid, starts asking around December time whether I have made plans for attending the festival in the following October.  For those on the outside this can seem a little baffling; to those on the inside it makes total sense.

Which for me is no better reason for trying to keep a running journal of sorts while I’m here at this year’s festival. Partly to keep track of what I’ve seen, but also to try and give some half-baked sense of what this obsession is, and to try and help those outside the silent film bubble to understand why the converted bang on about this festival so much.

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The setting is part of it, as it takes place in the town of Pordenone (pop 52’000), just shy of an hours travel north of Venice, and spitting distance from the Venetian alps. It’s difficult to not view the festival-goers as an invading horde, as the slew of international visitors completely take over the city for the week. English is the language the lingua franca you hear echoing in the streets, and silent cinema, if not film history, seems to be the only topic on everybody’s lips. At times you really have to remind yourself there actually is a city of Italians who live here for the other 51 weeks of the year.

Charming as the city is, with its reasonably priced wine/coffee/gelatos, the film programme is the chief attraction, and Pordenone is the pre-eminent place to see premieres of the latest discoveries and restorations from the fading world of silent cinema. To describe the programme as eclectic would be an understatement, as within the narrow remit of non-sound cinema it still manages to capture film from across the world. To take the first day as a prime example I had the good fortune of seeing a Norwegian tiger-tamer, a brief documentary about Romany travellers from 1932, an occasionally dream-like city symphony in honour of Chicago, a daft take on Romeo and Juliette in snowy Austria, followed by a ludicrously funny Italian war film, where the Italian strongman Maciste effectively won the war against Austro-Hungary by defenestrating every enemy soldier he could find. That is, when Maciste wasn’t too  busy snacking on a joint of ham or the like.

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A certain pleasure of the festival is the repeated confrontation with the unexpected, and the complete absence of critical consensus on almost everything. Talk to a gaggle of festival goers after any screening and more often than not the opinions will stretch from pillar to post. Romeo and Juliette, despite it’s light and cheeky humour, true to director Ernst Lubitsch, somehow had friends in raptures while sending me to sleep. Others found Maciste a colossal bore, but I couldn’t stop laughing at his ability to just end any conflict by either a) sitting on someone or alternatively b) throwing them out the window. That and his undying need to eat, and smile constantly through out. Daft and humourous, but also incredibly dark if you consider how it dramatizes an extremely dark and tragic chapter of the alpine front of World War One. Either ways the one critical consensus we did establish was the film probably could have benefitted from being a reel shorter, but that opinion may have been informed by the fact that the screening started at ten in the evening and wrapped up not long before midnight.

Now at the start of Day Two I’m already running late for some more City Symphonies, but uncharacteristically it is absolutely pissing it down with rain. Or rather intermittently so, and the last shower started and stopped in the time it took me to write that last sentence. Better run while the sun still shines, off to go and sit in a darkened room for another 9 to 12 hours. Mustn’t grumble.

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