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.

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One thought on “Day Four at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival

  1. Martin Weiss says:

    Thank you. Good to hear that one’s work does reach out 🙂

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