The Teatro Verdi, Pordenone
Day three of the Giornate del Cinema Muto, and things kick off with another Disney Laugh-o-Gram, The Four Musicians of Bremen (USA 1922). Though still quite basic in style and reliant on repetitive action, this is a big step up from yesterday’s Little Red Riding Hood. It has little to do with the original Grimm brothers story, instead being an excuse for jazz-inspired invention (notably a dancing fish lured out of the water by the musicians’ playing), delighting in the self-contained world of nonsense that the animation medium permits, where any object can take a life of its own, and where dream logic rules.
Our Georgian film for the day is Amerikanka (Georgia SSR 1930), which sounds like it is going to be fun just from the title. However it is not some sort of satire on things American, which I am expecting, but rather the dramatic and true tale of how a printing press was set-up in a Moscow shop basement in 1905 by Bolsheviks during the first Russian revolution – ‘Amerikanka’, or ‘American Lady’, turns out to be a name for a type of small Russian printing press. This is almost a great film; with better handling from director Leo Esakya it would have been one. It has a startlingly dramatic beginning, with two escaped prisoners in the snow, one of whom is shot dead, while the other is chained to him. How does he escape? We’re not told; he just does, and it is dramatic slips like this that confuse the audience and hamper the film. But anyway we follow the escapee to Moscow, where he and colleagues set up the printing press to produce revolutionary pamphlets which are secretly read all over the city. The authorities eventually track down the printing press and a battle ensues, but the narrative is not as important as the dyanamic style, in which the text/images generated by the press take over the screen, serving as sloganeering intertitles, turning the film itself into a revolutionary broadside. Form and intent merge as one, though one still wants a stronger grip on the story if we are to be moved and not just impressed. But a remarkable film all told.
The Soldier’s Courtship (1896), from Cineteca Nazionale
We have already written at length about The Soldier’s Courtship (UK 1896), the earliest British fiction film made for projection (I choose my words with care), recently discovered in the Cineteca Nazionale in Rome, where they have held the film for years but only recently established its identity. I will discuss the film in more depth in Day Four (a presentation is to be given on the film’s restoration), but just to say here that the film is a fleeting delight. The soldier and his sweetheart sit down on a bench and enthusiastically embrace; a woman of mature years sits down on the bench beside them and refuses to budge; his sweetheart remonstrates with him and encourages him to take action; he tips the woman off the bench and she leaves in a huff; the couple are triumphant, kiss, and share a cigar. The couple are played by variety theatre stalwarts Fred Storey and Julie Seale, and it is Seale’s bright, enthusiastic performance that stay in the memory. OK, it’s just a silly gag, but the Pordenone audience laughs at it – and then laughs all the more at the huge list of credits that follow the one-minute film (credits for its restoration, of course). More on The Soldier’s Courtship on the morrow.
We are in the Early Cinema programme, but before we have the main body of films, there is another British discovery, this time from the EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands. The Indian Woman’s Pluck (UK 1912) is a Cecil Hepworth production employing the classical Rescued by Rover formula. A baby is kidnapped and the thieves are tracked down my the family’s faithful Indian wet nurse (played by Ruby Belasco). It’s rather well paced and shot by director Frank Wilson, with the nurse tracing her prey by following drops of blood down the garden path, until the child is returned too hurriedly and the nurse explains her actions with a bit too much gesturing.
The main part of this programme is another collection of one-reelers from the extraordinary Corrick collection from the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. We have been treated to gems from this collection at Pordenone for a number of years now. The Corrick family of Australian travelling entertainers included films in their early 1900s shows, and they chose with care, because the quality of the titles in the archive they have handed down to us is consistently high. It is not going to be possible to go through them all here (the memory fades and the notes written in the dark have become all the more indecipherable). Stand-out titles include an awe-inspiring view of British battleships in a line at sea in Charles Urban’s Torpedo Attack on H.M.S. ‘Dreadnought’ (UK 1907); a spirited Pathé film on tobogganing down the Cresta Run, Sports d’Hiver: Le Tobogan (France 1905), so edited to make it look like the toboggan come down the ice in close succession when in fact one does not start until another has finished, a real sports film in its cutting and dynamism; [Sailor and Cop in Carpet?] (c.1904), an unidentified comedy, clearly British, in which a policeman and sailor argue, the former hides behind a carpet hanging on a line, then the sailor and a maid roll up the carpet and beat the policeman; a fascinating Edison proto-Western, On the Western Frontier (USA 1909) in which the use of painted backdrops for interiors and exteriors give a strong sense of the Western’s stage origins – the story is inpenetrable, but we can see cinematic ideas dimly evolve, though it would be more impressive if this were a 1904 film rather than 1909; an impressive Elephants Working in a Burmese Forest (Australia 1908), filmed by the Corricks themselves, which is notably absorbing; The Fakir and the Footpads (UK 1906), a Robert Paul trick film most engaging for including a Finchley road sign (a local signification from the filmmaker); and Personal (USA 1904), the famous Edison film which introduced the comedy chase genre (sixty years ahead of Benny Hill).
We head out for coffee and an agreeable discussion about early aviation films, then start the afternoon with a trio of films from the Shostakovich & FEKS strand. FEKS stands for the Factory of the Eccentric Actor, the avant garde acting troupe established by directors Grigori Koszintsev, Leonid Trauberg and others and dedicated to bringing together popular dramatic forms (music hall, Chaplin, circus, commedia dell’arte, Keystone etc) in an exuberant kind of performance that naturally had a manifesto and an -ism to its name – Eccentricism. They put on stage productions and they made films, and Shostakovich wrotes scores for a number of those films.
An early film production, before Shostakovich joined them, was Chyortovo Koleso (The Devil’s Wheel) (USSR 1926). Many greatly admired this tale (with reel three missing) of a sailor on shore leave who becomes mixed up with a Petrograd underworld gang, led by a stage magician called ‘The Question Man’. So I wish I could report more enthusiastically about it. It has some bravura fairground sequences (including the ‘devil’s wheel’ itself), and it all ends with an exciting battle, but looking beyond the style I find little to engage me (I even doze off for a while in the middle), and curiously I find more impressive a collection of fragments from the film which follows after, which may be outtakes or tinting tests. Divorced from narative, the fragments somehow highlight the directors’ vision more effectively; indeed the way in which they hide any story makes the connections between them seem all the more mysterious and inviting.
But what a treat now follows. We have a screen test for Novyi Vavilon (New Babylon) (USSR 1927). The subject is Raisa Garshnek, who was a 17-year-old Sovkino laboratory employee. She didn’t get the lead part (they gave her a bit part instead), and seeing the screen test we can see why, but what is wonderful is that she is still with us, and we see a video interview with her, now aged 101. She has kept hold of the screen test all these years (the only surviving screen test from the Soviet silent film era), and brightly tells us of her time at Sovkino, casually mentioning that it was she who painted the famous red flag at the end of Battleship Potemkin. You don’t expect there still to be a human connection between today and a film which is now so iconic you cannot really believe that real people actually worked on it.
Kobutori (which translates as His Snatched-Off Lump), from http://www.digital-meme.com
Next up is the first of two programmes of Japanese animation. Of course, these days everyone knows something about Japanese animation, and Studio Ghibli is one of the best-known film production companies anywhere. This programme takes us to the roots of anime and the scarcely-known early history of Japanese animation. The earliest surviving Japanese animation film dates from 1917, though in 2005 a hand-drawn fragment dating from before 1912 was found (not thought to have been released commercially). The Japanese animation films of the silent era are both familiar, in that they adopt basic techniques employed by American animation studios of the period, and strange, in that they take their films in entirely different directions – in theme, narrative, design and emphasis. They don’t look like later anime films (no large round eyes), but their very difference to the Western view gives them an affinity with the present-day work of Miyazaki and co.
I must refer you to the excellent notes by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström in the Pordenone 2011 catalogue, as without the context they provide the films you will only have my impressionistic, sometimes puzzled notes, because I cannot say that I always enjoyed the films that much. So we start with Namakura Gatana (Japan 1917), a mixture of rudimentary cut-out and silhouette animation about a samurai with a blunt sword, and Urashima Taro (Japan 1918), based on a folktale about a fisherman visiting the undersea domain of the Emperor of the Sea after rescuing a turtle, characterised by some elegant line, both of which were rediscovered in 2008 (something we reported at the time). The use of traditional stories and historical themes recur in what follows and distinguish Japanese early animation from what was being produced elsewhere. Kanimanji Engi (Japan 1924) is a rather creepy, unworldly fable about crabs who rescue a girl from a snake, made with silhouette animation. Some of the crabs die, indication of a bleaker attitude to life that characterises some of these films, certainly a long way off from Disney’s peppy, positive Laugh-o-Grams.
Ubasateyama (Japan 1925) tells of an old woman whose great widom enables her to solve riddles; Chappurin to Kugan (c.1921-25) is an artless oddity about which little is known. It has a cartoon Jackie Coogan visiting Japan (Chaplin appears only briefly), and in common with a number of these films it seems hard to judge for whom it was made – it seems to be equally lacking in appeal for children and adults. Sanbiki no Koguma-san (Japan 1931), or Three Little Bears, promises a more Disney-like theme, but though it has a similar combination of animals and travel through surreal adventures, it has a lot less sugar to it (my notes refer to children weeping when the bears melt a snowman – or was it the bears themselves that melted?).
Kobutori (Japan 1929) pretty much sums things up for me – who else who have considered even for a moment making an animation film about two old men disfigured by lumps on their faces? It’s a moral tale of two men who dance before odd bird-like creatures in the hope of losing their lumps; the good man is rewarded, the bad man ends up with two lumps. The artwork is fine and the narrative well-handled, but its sheer oddness I find bewildering. Another animation, another moral fable: Futatsu no Sekai (Japan 1929) was produced by the Ministry of Education and is based on the familiar Grasshopper and the Ant story. It contrasts the industry of those insects who work in summer with bourgeois idlers who, unprepared for winter time, fall into hardship, misery and even disfigurement. We are again reminded how life is unkind; Uncle Walt’s fables only tell us to have happy dreams. We finish off with Oira No Yakyu (Japan 1930), a spoof on the Japanese passion for baseball in a game played between rabbits and badgers (who look more like beavers to me). It starts off like an American animation (albiet technically inferior by far), then drifts off into more characteristic vein when the ball is knocked out into the countryside to be devoured by a frog.
An interesting evening’s programme awaits, but I head off for supper and engrossing discussion, which touches on film archive politics, Creative England, the British Film Institute, the Lumière brothers, visual sociology, the BBC, the Digital Public Space, home movies, federated databases, the Delhi Durbar, the challenges presented to translators by rapid-talking film academics, YouTube, programming early cinema, the British Library, magic lanterns, showmanship, film lecturers, scholarship, CCTV, film lecturers, digitising film journals, and much else besides. And all that takes up five hours, and so the day ends.
Please return soon for our report on day four, when we shall have offer you train travel with a hobo, a man suckled by a dog, a woman living underground, and an entire theatre quivering in horror at the sounds of the 21st century.
Pordenone diary 2011 – day one
Pordenone diary 2011 – day two
Pordenone diary 2011 – day four
Pordenone diary 2011 – day five
Pordenone diary 2011 – day six
Pordenone diary 2011 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2011 – day eight