Pordenone diary 2011 – day four

Audience in the Teatro Verdi awaiting the screening of Le Voyage dans la lune in colour, David Robinson (far right) introducing

The days go by, as they tend to do, and here I am on my last day in Pordenone, with the Giornate del Cinema Muto only halfway through. Never fear, there is cover organised, and for the four remaining days you will be getting reports from the Bioscope’s anonymous but observant and eloquent co-reporter, the Mysterious X. But it is Tuesday 4 October, and I am up with the lark once more, ready as soon as the doors of the Verdi opening for our first films films of the day – and what a marvellous start it is.

We begin, as we have each day, with a Disney Laugh-o-Gram. Puss in Boots (USA 1922) is great fun, never more so than when Puss goes to the cinema to see ‘Rudolph Vaselino’. It is filmed with zip and zest and a gag in every shot, though somebody should have told Walt that he had used the joke about eight of a cat’s lives floating up from its prone body a few times too often – it’s the third time we’ve seen it this week.

Next, two films in the Treasures of the West strand, both of them gems. Deschutes Driftwood (USA 1916) is an Educational Films production from the time when they made educational film, not the comedies for which they later became famous. The film follows a hobo (‘Walter’) as he travels along the Deschutes river, Oregon, hoping from train to train as a succession of authorities move him on. It is half a scenic (a phantom ride from a tramp’s point of view) and half a melancholy disquisition on a rootless life. It seems informed by a sensibility years ahead of its time, even if it is not strictly sympathetic towards its stubborn hero. Stephen Horne gives a sensitive accompaniment on piano an accordion, and this wistful, unexpected 11-minute film is for me the hit of the festival so far.

Or at least until the next film to be shown. Now, if you are introducing someone to the delights of the silent cinema for the first time, what would you encourage them to see? Metropolis, maybe? Pandora’s Box or The General probably. Well it’s always good to see a classic, but somehow classics stand alone and tell you more about themselves than they do about the medium to which they belong. If I were introducing someone to silents, I might prefer a film of more modest ambition, but one which nevertheless demonstrates through subtle artistry a particular understanding of human things, one that shows off the medium to its greater advantage. A film such as The Lady of the Dugout (USA 1918).

The Lady of the Dugout, with (L-R) Frank Jennings, Al Jennings, Corinne Grant and Ben Alexander, from http://www.filmpreservation.org

The Lady of the Dugout was produced, co-written by and stars Al Jennings, a sometime small-town lawyer, turned outlaw, turned evangelist (after a spell in prison and a presidential pardon). The film documents a tale from his time as an outlaw, heading the Jennings gang alongside his brother Frank (who like Al plays himself in the film) in the late 1890s. It’s a Robin Hood-style story, in which the Jennings brothers come across a deserted wife and child in a wretched dugout home (literally a hole in the ground with a roof over it), living in the middle of nowhere and without food. They come to her rescue (using money from one of their robberies), then when her brutal husband returns they take her to her middle-class family home, where her once unforgiving father now takes her back.

The story is engrossing, and the insight it gives into a frontier life where dreams have turned sour is a special one. There is an authenticity in locale, in the weatherbeaten looks of the Jennings brothers, in the action (a particularly convincing, almost matter-of-fact bank robbery), in manner and in human feeling. The film develops not out of the demands of story but out of circumstance, character and a true moral sense. The director was W.S. Van Dyke, and I can’t think of a better-handled silent film. It’s low-key, it doesn’t touch on any grand themes (though forgiveness, which is what it is ultimately about, is a noble theme), but it is about things that matter and people that we care for. You feel that nothing stood in the way of the filmmakers being able to tell the story exactly in the way that they wanted to (its sympathetic view of the outlaw life is extraordinary). It’s hard to believe that a film of such easy naturalism was made only four years after The Birth of a Nation. Only an over-cute child, and for this screening a poor quality DVD-R after the DigiBeta wouldn’t play, let things down. It’s on the new Treasures of the West DVD – please see it.

We return to The Canon Revisited, the strand of silent classics that the Giornate feels we need to see again to see how well they stand up in modern times, but which many of us are not too sure we’d ever heard of. Certainly one senses few in the audience could tell you much about director Fridrikh Ermler and would have to confess that they are seeing Oblomok Imperii (Fragment of an Empire) (USSR 1929) for the first time. Few would deny its position of greatness by the end of it, however. This is quite an extraordinary film. Its subject is a shell-shocked soldier, Filimonov (mesmerisingly played with wide-eyed puzzlement by Fedor Nikitin), who loses his memory at the end of the First World War, gradually regaining it four years later, when he discovers a very different country to the one he thought he knew. The buildings have changed, manners have changed, most significantly there are now no masters – he, like everyone else, is the master now.

Except that things are not quite like that, and this is where the film’s startling satirical power lies. Filimonov embraces socialism, but finds that many in this so-called new society have not given up on the old, bad ways, in particular the party apparatchik who has married Filimonov’s wife. Ermler recognises the private face of the USSR behind the public facade, and that all is not yet well, or as some would have things be, because people will be people. Ultimately the film is conflicted in the lessons it wants to draw from Filimonov’s experience, the eye for truth coming up against idealism and ideology. It is dispiriting when Filimonov, whom we have come to like greatly, turns to the camera at the end of the film and says (through intertitles), “No, it is not the end – there’s a great deal yet to be done, comrades”. Of course it is the only ending that could be expected, given the political climate, but the film has shown a much more interesting and plausible world, and it is remarkable that he was allowed to do so as much as he did. A few years later, there would have been no chance of anyone making such a questioning piece of cinema.

The film is technically dazzling, particularly some hallucinatory flashbacks, including a war scene where Filimonov encounters a German soldier played by the same actor. The opening is particularly arresting – a soldier lying close to death amid typhoid-ridden corpses, desperate to quench his thirst, sees a nearby dog with her puppies, is suckled by the dog, then someone comes up and shoots the dog, before Filimonov rescues the soldier (whom he meets later in the film). This traumatic scenario is recalled throughout the film. It is impressions like these of the past that continue to haunt the USSR, Ermler seems to be suggesting. Society may think of utopias, but the mind has other ideas.

Praise, by the way, is due to John Sweeney for his spirited accompaniment, in particular a moment of sheer genius when a balaika band appeared on screen (John not having seen the film beforehand) and he instantly produces the sounds of balaikas on the piano. We really are blessed at Pordenone by some outstandingly skilled, imaginative musicians.

Collegium audience learning about The Soldier’s Courtship

I head to join the Collegium, a sort of school for budding film archivists and scholars which the festival hosts. In practice this means a series of presentations relating to films and themes from the festival. I’m here to see the presentation by the Cineteca Nazionale and restoration specilaists Omnimago on The Soldier’s Courtship, the 1896 British film we saw yesterday. this is a fascinating mixture of historical investigation and technical exposition. The film has been held by the Cineteca for many years under a generic title and was only identified recently. At 80ft it is double the legnth of a standard Robert Paul film of the period, and Paul had problems showing it initially as his projector could not cope. Paul’s catalogue offers the film in two parts, though it is hard to say where the join could have been. As well as the 35mm film they held, the restorers also made use of the fragment from the film held by the National Media Museum in Bradford and a Filoscope flipbook of the film. There were signs of retouching in the print, possibly done in 1900, and there was further retouching done for the digital restoration, where damaged sections were papered over by clean sections from other frames (they wonder out loud whether they have over-restored to some degree – the purists might have been reassured by the sight of more blotches). One wishes Paul could have seen the extraordinary lengths to which we can now go to return a one-minute film to pristine state – electron microscope analysis, Diamant software, SCANITY film processing, Photoshop treatment of individual frames. We can make the past look so much better, the further in time we retreat from it.

I miss the afternoon’s screenings of Thanhouser films, being preoccupied by work matters (from which there is never any real escape) but fortunately I have notes from The Mysterious X, who was there, and reports thus:

First up post-lunch was a session of Thanhouser films, curated and presented by Ned Thanhouser, starting with four one-reelers: Uncle’s Namesakes (USA 1913) was a blast; a father of twin girls deceives their rich British-based uncle, who wanted the offspring to carry his name, into thinking they were twin boys; an inheritance is at stake. But Uncle rumbles the situation and decides to pay a visit … Petticoat Camp (USA 1912) was a delightful proto-feminist comedy over job demarcation on a camping holiday, and the strike and walkout that follows. An Elusive Diamond (USA 1914) was the tale of jewel thieves outwitted by the quick thinking of the young lady they target. Their One Love (USA 1915) was a US Civil War tale of twin girls whose childhood playmate grows up to go to war. David Copperfield (USA 1911) was a three-reel adaptation; based visually, as so many adaptations are, on the Phiz illustrations. It rolled along nicely, but suffered a little in comparisom to the slightly later, more energetic one-reelers.

I don’t know enough to say if these films are entirely representative of the Thanhouser output, or if Ned Thanhouser has (understandably) cherry-picked the very best of what survives; but if they are, or even close to it, what a studio that must have been. All the films featured excellent staging and use of locations, some finely sensitive acting – only slightly broad in the comedy; and notably good, involving roles for the women to get their teeth into. Their One Love featured a charming passage-of-time device; a calendar on a desk is not unusual … having a miniature becloaked Father Time walk onto the desk to rip pages off the calendar is a tad more ambitious. And the lighting and special effects used during the battle sequence were exceptional; not the epic spread of Griffith’s cast of thousands, but intelligent use of less generous resources to great result. Playing the piano for these was the always excellent Phil Carli, but here seeming absolutely in his element with these cracking little films. As always happens somewhen during the Giornate, I really feel the need to explore further; to the Thanhouser website on my return home.

Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films interviewed about the colour restoration of Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la lune (“The Avatar of its day”), with clips from the film itself (without the Air soundtrack)

The evening show commences, and the theatre, with all four tiers full, is a-buzz with excitement. It is not the main feature that is causing such fervour, but the short that precedes it – the colour restoration of Georges Méliès’ La Voyage dans la lune (1902), undoubtedly the most familiar of all early films, now to be seen as none of us has seen it in a hundred years. Festival director David Robinson introduces Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange from Lobster Films, who have restored the film. Their plan is to make prints available in each of the major film archives around the world, while popularising their discovery by making it accessible to new audiences – people who “don’t know anything about anything”, in Bromberg’s somewhat unfortunate phrase. A significant element of the popularisation has been the decision to give the film a soundtrack written by vogue-ish French group Air, about which they seem a little ashamed and which Robinson introduces with apprehension, telling the audience (which is trembling in its seats in fear at this rude intrusion of the 21st century) that maybe they can screen the film later in the festival with traditional piano, which won’t upset anyone.

And then the film screening, and a pounding beat from the start probably comfirms the audience’s worst fears. Well, all I can say is that if silent films can’t stand up to 21st century treatment then there may be no good reason for continuing with them at all. And the Air soundtrack is a triumph. I don’t think I have heard a better modern accompaniment to a silent film. It is electro-pop with occasional diversions into odd noises, even background talk, with each scene given a different musical treatment, the musicians having noticeably picked up on various visual cues, such as the hammering of workmen when the rocket is being constructed. There is great variety, yet each element combines to make the harmonious whole, with a rousing stomp for the film’s triumphal finish that continues over the credits. The colour definition varies quite a bit throughout the film, but what comes over with great clarity is that this was always a film meant to be shown in colour – in truth, we haven’t seen Le Voyage dans la lune properly until now. Colour and music combine naturally to accentuate the film’s huge inventiveness. And David Robinson did have the good grace to say afterwards that he thought they’d actually made quite a good job of the music. Indeed they have. I hope it is enough to give the film the theatrical screenings that have been talked about (maybe accompanying Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, which features Méliès as a character?). It is a triumph in every degree.

OK, follow that. Well, what could? We do have Shinel (The Overcoat) (USSR 1926), another FEKS production from Grigori Kosintsev and Leonid Trauberg, a classic of sorts, though instead of Shostakovich’s music we get Maud Nelissen and trio playing her score to the film. I would happily listen to the music again, but not see the film again. Indeed for quite some time I listen only to the music and ignore the film entirely. Based on Gogol’s short story and avant garde in treatment, it goes on and on, seemingly without purpose. Why do people move and gesture with such meaningless slowness? What is the point of it all? When will anything happen of any significance? Why should we care? An old print does not help matters, and all in all this was a very odd choice for one of the prestige evening screening. Shinel feels lost to another age; Le Voyage dans la lune feels like it belongs to today.

The last film of the evening is Az utolsó hajnal (The Last Dawn) (Hungary 1917), directed by Michael Curtiz (as he would become). This was a pleasant surprise. I have been expecting something far cruder in technique and performance than that which we get. The film is sophisticated in performance and polished in technique, if wordy and frankly at times a bit above itself. It concerns a world-weary upper class man who decides to commit suicide, after insuring his life, to help a friend escape debts. The film makes something of a misjudgement when it moves to India (not an easy place to recreate in Hungary on a limited budget), then becomes intriguing when the man does indeed kill himself with the help of a mysterious Indian friend. This takes us greatly by surprise, but not nearly as much as when the Indian whips off his beard and reveals himself to be a relative of the man who appeared earlier in the film and who has actually ensured that the poison he has taken will not kill him. Much applause from the audience at a corny trick well executed. An enjoyable film, if a long long way away from Casablanca.

And that is Pordenone for me this year. I must return to London to deal with assorted pressing matters. I have enjoyed the Giornate, particularly the screenings today, though the feeling is (and others seem to share this) that it hasn’t quite hit the heights too often. Perhaps the Mysterious X, who takes over this diary for day five, will see things differently. We shall see.

Pordenone diary 2011 – day one
Pordenone diary 2011 – day two
Pordenone diary 2011 – day three
Pordenone diary 2011 – day five
Pordenone diary 2011 – day six
Pordenone diary 2011 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2011 – day eight

10 responses

  1. The Mysterious X has supplied these thoughts on La Voyage dans la lune, which I offer in contrast to my own:

    The evening show began with one of the year’s big news items, the restored hand-tinted print of Melies’ Voyage Dans La Lune (FR 1902). At Bologna this year it was presented with Timothy Brock’s fine and effective arrangement/compilation of themes from the 1875 Offenbach operetta; this time we had the modern score, commissioned for the project by the funding bodies from the French nouveau-prog-rocik group Air. Now, I keep, or try to keep, an open mind on such scores; sometimes they work brilliantly, sometimes not. The music was interesting, but did it do anything for the film ?? Very few, across all the generations, thought so. In parts it almost worked against it, even denigrated it, some said.

    For me, and for those of my particular generation, it made one immediate connection; to where it must have been the first time I saw Melies footage, as opposed to imagery; on mid-70’s late-night TV, a BBC music show called The Old Grey Whistle Test. In between, say, live studio performances by Wishbone Ash and some film footage of David Bowie, you might get an album track from a prog act that had no suitable footage and were not available to come to the studio – so the track would play to silent-era footage chosen for the occasion with varying degrees of aptness; Melies, Metropolis, anonymous dancing girls, whatever. So there I was, watching this herculean effort of film restoration, transported not to the moon of Verne’s Victorian imagination, or turn of the century Paris, but to my parent’s living room, and 1974. I’m sure that wasn’t the plan.

  2. I couldn’t wait to get my hands and eyes on the latest Treasures set. I was not disappointed. The anticipated Mantrap by Victor Fleming with the eternally delicious Clara Bow and Womanhandled from Gregory La Cava with Richard Dix showing a flair for comedy which I had never suspected were both wonderful, but the surprise and knockout of the set is the above-mentioned and deservedly praised The Lady of the Dugout. A beautiful film, and a great set!

  3. Dear Luke,

    I dó care a great great deal for The Overcoat otherwise I couldn’t have made any music for this film.For me “the something significant’
    you are desperatly surching for in this film
    happens in my (the) mind and I dó care about it and I’m actually happy and relieves it’s nót for a change presented literally on screen.For me the film in this sense is absolutely clear.So…as always….it’s a great matter of taste and the way people watch a movie !

  4. Maud,

    It is good to hear the other point of view. The film simply didn’t register with me at all. I should have tried harder (with all of the guidance that your really excellent music provided).

  5. Ned Thanhouser here, thanks so much for the wonderful descriptions of the festival and films, so nice to read these and relive the films in my mind.

    As for the Thanhouser films shown at the Giornate, it was actually David Robinson who selected the films after watching most of the 56 titles available online on the Thanhouser website. I think he did “cherry pick” some of the best, but I believe there are many other gems worth watching.

    For example “The Vagabonds” (1915) http://thanhouser.org/films/vagabonds.htm is a one reel film that, through a series of flashbacks, a penniless, friendless tramp and his dog relates the story of his downfall due to drink.

    Take a look and enjoy, Ned

  6. Everyone I know who saw TRIP TO THE MOON at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hated the new music, film historians, collectors, long time silent film geeks alike.

  7. There might have been, but I don’t know any of them. There were younger people (45 and below) in the audience, but don’t know what brought them there. Everybody I know loved how wonderful the film looked and the story involved in saving it, but are all hoping there is a substitute score available with it when it comes out on DVD. Some of these people love the Alloy Orchestra, and some don’t.

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