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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