Pordenone diary 2011 – day one

Festival-goers in the foyer of the Verdi theatre for the Giornate del Cinema Muto

Here we are again in Pordenone. It’s a pleasing, unostentatious town on the Venetian plain, to the north-west of Italy, population around 50,000, and not to be found in many guidebooks. There’s just the one scenic street likely to attract the day-tripper, the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, but it’s a place whose quiet pleasures become all the more apparent if you stay for a while. Say, at a silent film festival.

So we are at the thirtieth Giornate del Cinema Muto, and if you think it’s a wonder that after thirty years they still have something new to show, well we learn in the festival catalogue that there are some 50,000 silent films held in FIAF archives and Pordenone has so far shown 6,658 of them, so we’ve a way to go yet, and the Giornate is right to pursue its policies of comprehensiveness, discovery and pushing back the boundaries. At Pordenone, silent films are always going forward, never standing still.

So we fly in via Trieste (such glorious, glorious views over Venice), a route taken by surprisingly few festival-goers, so that the three of us on the flight headed for the Giornate are treated to a festival car. For a moment, when I see my name held up on a card in the airport I think that perhaps the festival is so in awe of these Pordenone diaries that we produce each year that they have laid on a courtesy car for our special benefit. But the car is for the rather more deserving pianist John Sweeney, and thus we arrive in Pordenone in comfort and warm sunshine at four in the afternoon.

We register, and discover to our dismay that the festival catalogue has been delayed and will not be available until Tuesday. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth (inwardly at least), and we abandon plans to blog daily from the festival because the catalogue’s detailed background information is essential if we are to provide you with a solid reference work as opposed to mere impressionism. We check in at the ever-reliable Park Hotel, then head back to the centre of town and into the Verdi theatre to catch our first films (which have been screening since 14:30). A slight contretemps occurs when the Verdi staff refuse to let us into the upper floor where we prefer to sit (because the ground floor seats are not yet filled up), but we are philosophical about this, eventually.

Into the auditorium, and our first film is not one for the frivolous. The Doomed (Gantsirluni) (Georgia SSR 1930) is directed by the Georgian Lev Push, one of last year’s festival’s discoveries. The feature-length film concerns a mutiny among Russian troops in France following the October 1917 revolution. It starts with Kino-Pravda-style newsreel intercut with sloganeering, then turns into drama, with the pained faces of the mutinous soldiers in their barracks, their faces shown in the uncompromising, epic light that so characterises Soviet filmmaking of the period. I struggle to resolve the dehumanized presentation with the human fellow feeling it strives to evoke, but others find the film technically impressive.

Luisella and Raffaele Viviani (centre) in Un Amore Selvaggio (1912), from http://archiviteatro.napolibeniculturali.it/teatroViviani.html

More to my taste is Un Amore Selvaggio (Italy 1912), part of the festival’s Italy: Restrospect and Discovery strand. This is a hoot. It stars what are clearly a stage duo, bringing their larger-than-life stage personas to the screen. The duo are brother and sister Luisella and Raffaele Viviani, Neapolitan stage actors who specialise in native dramas of grimy realism and high passion, usally directed by Raffaele. It is the only one of their three films to survive. Here they play a Sicilian brother and sister in a drama of intense revenge, where she asks her brother to kill a farm owner who has rejected her advances because she is his social inferior, only preventing him from doing so when she changes her mind. Never have eyes rolled so much, arms waved so passionately, nor hair been pulled back so constantly. Yet it is not comical; rather it jolts the audience out of complacency, showing an edgier form of early cinema than we usually experience out of the comparatively milder stage traditions of northern Europe and America. When Raffaele looks like he wants to fight, he sems more than ready to deal in real blows; when Luisella wants you killed, the audience starts worrying for you.

One fascinating minor detail. The sister in Un Amore Viaggio tries to poison a female rival by dipping sulphur matches into her drink. We learn that a Hungarian film shown earlier in the day (presumably A Tolonc) features exactly the same strategy. It doesn’t work for Luisella – her would-be victim merely puts down the drink because it tastes funny. Did poisoning by matches ever work? Was it common?

More high passion follows. The title of Più che la morte (Italy 1912) translates as ‘worse than death’ (all of the films at Pordenone come with titles projected beneath the screen translated into English and Italian). The name of the director of this Cines historical drama is not known, which is a great shame, because he demonstrates eye-catching technical skill, with dramatic foregrounding of characters and striking use of lateral camera movement. Our hero (in some nineteenth-century setting) betrays some friends to save his wife from torture by the police. His friends are his friends no longer. They tie him to a post, and through two sets of windows he sees his wife and child trapped in a room which is then set on fire. Nice framing of the inset background action we tell ourselves, while shivering at the horror and wondering at the mind who made such an entertainment.

Più che la morte is one of a number of films shown at the Giornate from the Desmet collection of the Netherlands EYE Film Institute. The collection of Dutch cinema owner and film distributor Jean Desmet was recently inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, one of the few films or film collections on the prestigious register, and an interesting example of one country championing the preservation of the cultural artefacts of others, since few of the Desmet films are Dutch.

The evening’s festival treat is Novi Vavilon (New Babylon) (USSR 1929), part of the Shostakovich & FEKS strand, of which more in a later diary. The film is screened to Shostakovich’s score played by the FVG Mitteleuropa Orchestra, but these grand occasions (and the demand that you take a particular seat) are not to our taste, so we retire for the evening.

This year’s Giornate is seeing greater coverage online than seems to have been the case before. There is the Giornate’s Twitter account, finally leaping into life, and a wide selection of photographs on its Flickr account, from which photographs of day one are here. There are also videos from their YouTube channel, some of which we shall embed here for the days where they belong.

Stay tuned for the Bioscope’s Pordenone diary day two, when we shall bring you the earliest Disney cartoon, Japanese polar explorers, the parting of the Red Sea, and Georgian peasant radio enthusiasts.

Pordenone diary 2011 – day two
Pordenone diary 2011 – day three
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

Tied to the tracks

I’m grateful to Bioscope regular Penfold for bringing this delightful short animation by Aidan McAteer to my attention. It is funny, stylish, and will have particular resonance for any weekend train traveller in the UK who has come up against the words ‘engineering works’ …

It’s a mocking idea of a silent film, the kind of silent film that was never made. All those know don’t know silent films know one thing about them – that they featured evil villains who twirled their moustaches then tied a hapless female to the railway track. And all those who do know silent films know that such scenes were hackneyed even before films were invented, and the few films that did show them did so as parody.

It’s an issue that comes up time and time again, so let’s try and pin down the historical truth. The idea of an entertainment where someone is tied to a railway track and is rescued in the nick of time certainly predates cinema. The entertainment that put the idea into the popular imagination was an 1867 stage melodrama written by American playwright and theatre manager Augustin Daly entitled Under the Gaslight which featured a man tried to railway tracks who was rescued by a woman before he could be run over by the oncoming train (Victorian theatre revelled in such stage spectaculars). An earlier play, The Engineer, had some elements that may have inspired Daly, but he put all the right elements together.

Poster for Under the Gaslight, from http://www.josephhaworth.com. Note the male victim and the female rescuer

When the man in peril was changed to a woman in peril in the popular imagination is unclear, but it is no surprise that the transference was made. The play was wildly popular and was re-produced many times, while Daly complained that his big idea was stolen by other theatrical managers who adapted it for their own entertainments. When films appeared, thirty years later, the mannerisms of stage meldorama that had sent shivers up Victorian spines were out-of-date (so no more twirling of moustaches if you wanted your villain to be taken seriously) while the elaborate stage effects were increasingly supplanted by the realism that cinema could provide by filming on location. So, as dramatic films emerged a major sub-genre emerged of the train thriller (including such notable titles as D.W. Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator and The Girl and Her Trust). But the thrill had transferred from the tracks to the train itself. It is the speed, power and modernity of the train that characterises such films, not the notion of tying someone to the tracks which was too much ingrained in outmoded stage conventions to be taken seriously.

That said, the transference was not immediate, because there were at least two films featuring a woman in peril of being run over by a train that played it straight before anyone played it for laughs. Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon’s The Train Wreckers (Edison 1905) features a switchman’s daughter who is pursued by a gang of outlaws, tied to a tree, then when she she escapes (her dog unties the rope) the outlaws knock her unconscious and lay her on the railway track. Happily her boyfriend is a rail engineer who scoops her up from the cow-catcher in the nick of time. So, not exactly tied to the rails, but near enough, and a work very much in the spirit of the Victorian melodrama.

The set-up was still credible in 1911 because it turned up again with Pathé/American Kinema’s The Attempt on the Special, which is very close in action to the earlier film, down the heroine being left unconscious on the rails (rather than tied up) and the assistance from a dog. It is described thus by the BFI National Archive:

Nell, the pointsman’s daughter is tied up by a gang who plan to rob a train. A greyhound, taught to relay messages between herself and her boyfriend comes to her aid and unties her. She sends the dog off with a message for help, but in attempting to escape she is knocked down and left lying on the track. The message is recieved in time to save the girl and the gang is routed.

Ford Sterling with the sledgehammer and Mabel Normand tied in the rails in Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913), from moma.org

The film that established the parodic idea, and which is often used to illustrate it, is Keystone’s Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913), featuring real-life motor racer Barney Oldfield, Ford Sterling as the moustachioed villain and Mabel Normand as the victim. The film plays it entirely for laughs, and the still above shows you everything you would expect to see. Not only is it not the archetypal silent, but it is unusual for its time in parodying dramatic conventions that someone like D.W. Griffith was still half in thrall to. Perhaps 1913 was some sort of a threshold year of a lack of respect for Victoriana, because stage melodrama is similarly ridiculed by the British film Blood & Bosh, made in the same year by Hepworth. It can be seen as a sign of the growing maturity of the film medium as it outgrew its stage origins, and as the twentieth century increasingly outgrew the nineteenth.

Betty Hutton playing Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline (1947), from http://www.dvdbeaver.com

It is commonly believed that heroines being tied to the tracks was a common element in the adventures serials that appeared around this time, such as The Exploits of Elaine (1914), The Perils of Pauline (1914) or The Hazards of Helen (1914-17). Such serials skilfully married the melodramatic conventions of an earlier age with independent heroines that were a part of the modern world. The heroines were put into perilous situations, but they had the resourcefulness to escape from them. Trains feature frequently in such serials, but the heroine is more likely to be tackling danger on the train rather than being passively threatened by it. The Perils of Pauline, often cited as showing Pauline (Pearl White) being tied to a railway track, contained no such scene. Indeed, the only example from a silent serial I have traced with anything like such a scenario is the Helen Holmes serial, A Lass of the Lumberlands (1916). Here a person was a person tied to the tracks, but it was a man, and it was Helen – in true Under the Gaslight fashion – who rescued him. In the 1947 feature film The Perils of Pauline Betty Hutton (playing Pauline heroine Pearl White) does get tied to the rails, but that just shows what had been forgotten about silents in less than two decades. And it was probably from here – a parody of a parodic idea – that the idea as being archetypally silent film took hold, and has remained.

Helen Holmes to the rescue in A Lass of the Lumberlands

Interestingly Under the Gaslight itself was filmed, in 1914, with Lionel Barrymore and Millicent Evans, though the plot synopses I’ve seen make no mention of any trains at all (and the film is lost). Instead it was Keystone who returned to the comic idea established in Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life when they made Teddy at the Throttle (1917), in which Gloria Swanson gets tied (strictly speaking, chained) to the tracks, Wallace Beery is the villain, and it is the quick-witted dog (Teddy) who saves Gloria.

So the idea was around in the silent era, but infrequently so. It was played straight on a few occasions, parodied on about as many, and inverted on at least one occasion. It is anything but a major theme.

But the myth goes on. The villain twirls his moustache. The pianist pounds away furiously as the train grows ever closer. The girl, bound with rope, squirms and screams. Will the hero get there in time? Will the idea that this is what silent films were about ever be shaken off? Probably not. It’s what people need to know who don’t need to know. We’ll just have to live with them.

Pordenone diary 2010 – day two

Verdi theatre, Pordenone

There’s no time for slouching at Pordenone if you are serious about your film-watching. A few habitués of the Giornate del Cinema Muto seem to have come for the sun and conversation, taking up near permanent residence in the pavement cafés, but for the rest of us breakfast was swiftly followed by the first film of the day at 9.00am sharp and the final film of the day concluding around midnight. They do let you out for lunch and dinner, but in general it’s a tough regime we had to follow.

And so we move to day two, Sunday 3 October, and what was to become the daily routine of starting off with a long Japanese film, just to test our stamina. Our 9.00am offering was Nanatsu No Umi (Seven Seas) (Japan 1931-32), made in two parts and shown back-to-back over 150 minutes. The films were made by Hiroshi Shimizu, director of the previous day’s Japanese Girls at the Harbour, and there were clear similarities in preoccupations and style.

The film tells of Yumie (played by Hiroko Kawasaki) who is torn between two brothers. She is engaged to the first but seduced by the second, following which her father dies and her sister goes mad. She marries her seducer but takes her revenge by refusing to let him touch her and spending all his money on her sister’s care in a mental hospital. It was pure soap opera, with a somewhat discontinuous narrative (particularly in part 1) characterised by seemingly random elements (just who was it who committed suicide in part 1, and why?) and unclear connections between some of the characters. Then it all ended with a happy ending so rapidly organised that you suspected that a reel was missing. As with Saturday, Shimizu showed off plenty of directorial tricks but lacked the basic skill of connecting one shot with another to propel a narrative forward. But he also showed the same intriguing, codified cultural elements, dividing the action up into public lives that showed the influence of the West (clothing, occupations, the key location of a sports shop) and traditional Japanese dress and manners within the private sphere. You felt you had been given a privileged glimpse into early 1930s Japanese life in the kind of middle-brow film that doesn’t usually make it to retrospectives. Japan’s leading silent film pianist Mie Yanashita was an excellent accompanist for this and all the other Japanese films that featured in the festival.

Scenes from Rituaes e festas Borôro (1916), from http://www.scielo.br

Now these dramatic films are fine in themselves, and even the severest of film critics likes to see a story told well, but regulars will know that what really stirs the heart of the Bioscope is the non-fiction film. So I was looking forward greatly to what was next on the list – Brazilian documentaries – and was not disappointed. In particular the first film of three, Rituaes e festas Borôro (Rituals and Festivals of the Borôro) (Brazil 1916) was one of the highlights of the festival. The filmmaker was Luiz Thomas Reis, photographer and cinematographer with the Commission of Strategic Telegraph Lines from the Mato Grosso to the Amazon, more simply known as the Rondon Commission. The Commission was tasked with mapping the unknown regions of Brazil and making contact with remote tribes. Reis documented this work on film, in part with the hope that the exhibition of such films would raise further funding.

Rituaes e festas Borôro is an extraordinary work, simply by letting the extraordinary speak for itself. Its subject is the Borôro people of the Mato Grosso region, specifically the funeral ceremonies for an elder of the village. I am no expert in anthropology, but the film seemed to me notable for its observant, unpatronising, humane manner. The camera never intruded, only witnessed, and the Borôro were not looked upon as objects of curiosity but as people respected for their customary practices and milieu. This was somewhat charmingly exemplified by the dogs. Stray dogs in early films are something of a Bioscope fetish, and Reis’ film captured not just the dances of the Borôro but the dogs who casually wandered in and out of the frame, surveying the strange things that these humans do in whatever part of the globe that humans happen to gather. The only questionable note was the assurance made by the film’s titles that these rites were not permitted to be seen by whites or women – yet here was the camera filming them. Such are the paradoxes of the anthropological film, a subject to which the Giornate would find itself returning in subsequent days.

Two other Reis films made for the Rondon Commission followed, Parima, fronteiras do Brasil (Brazil 1927) and Viagem ao Roroima (Brazil 1927). Each just under 30mins in length, these were more conventionally ‘travelogue’ in style. The first documented an inspection of the Brazilian-French Guiana border, following the river, with some thrilling shots taken from the front of a travelling canoe (the Brazilian version of the phantom ride), but with plenty of signs of encroaching colonisation in the builings that littered the banks of the river. The second explored the borderland between Brazil, Venezuela and British Guiana and concluded with breathtaking views of 1,000-foot high rock faces. In both films there were sequences where they came upon tribes, so positioned in the film as to be the big pay-off shots, the exotic conclusions which would capture the interest and wallets of likely funders. Rituaes e festas Borôro was in every sense the better film.

Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück, with a band in the understage area playing the Internationale

So that was the morning session. A foul snack lunch and earnest conversations about budget cuts (again) and we were back at 14:30 for Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück (Mother Krause’s Journey to Happiness) (Germany 1929). This was being shown as pat of the Giornate’s ‘The Canon Revisited’ strand. There is an occasional air of pompousness about the festival, and this idea of re-assessing canonical films exemplifies it. It’s a good idea to revisit classics, especially for the new audiences the festival is attracting, but a number of these films were titles that many of us had not had any chance to see the first time round; indeed I suspect most of us had not even heard of them. Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück was a case in point; a film I’d vaguely heard of, but never seen, though I will admit it’s a classic of sorts and certainly merits being brought back to the screen once more.

Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück is as agit-prop a film as you could expect to see. Directed by Piel Jutzi, it combines melodrama with documentary realism in its depiction of the ground-down lives of the Berlin proletariat. It tells of the family and tenants of an apartment managed by the aged Mother Krause (Alexandra Schmidt), pitting the apathy and resignation of the individualised poor (generally the elderly) against the positive binding together of those who follow the Communist party (generally the young). Its highpoint is where the harassed daughter (Ilse Trautschold) joins her boyfriend in a protest march to the sounds of the Internationale – literally so in our case, because at this point a marching band of red-suited musicians entered the Verdi theatre and played the marching song to much applause. It was a wonderful thearical coup – typical of the imagination that goes into the Giornate.

However, despite such rousing gestures, the film’s message was an unsettling one. We were supposed to reject Mother Krause’s miserablist view of her fate, but only after the film had done all it could to make us feel sorry for her, so that the ending – where she gasses herself and a sleeping child, because life simply isn’t worth it for either of them – was distasteful and the conclusion ambiguous. It was a stylish and imaginatively experimental film, but what it expounded was more posture than principle.

Next up came a selection of Pathé short comedies with surprisingly sophisticated live musical accompaniment from pupils of the Scuola Media “Balliana-Nievo” from nearby Sacile, music that was a good deal richer in colour and instrumentation than other schools’ work with silent films that I have heard. They were followed by pupils of Pordenone’s Scuola Media Centro Storico, who took on the truly bizarre Charley Bowers, an American comedian whose gimmick was to combine comedy with stop-frame animation. In There it is (USA 1928) he plays a Scottish detective from Scotland Yard who tackles the case of a haunted house with the aid of his cockroach sidekick, MacGregor. It wasn’t strictly funny, but it left this viewer – whose first Bowers film it was – opened-mouthed at its unabashed weirdness. If Salvador Dali had been employed by Leo McCarey, he might have made There it is.

In need of a break, I missed the new documentary Palace of Silents (USA 2010) on the story of Los Angeles’ Silent Movie Theater, returning for the evening’s screenings. The Giornate was celebrating the 75th anniversary of two of the world’s leading film archives, MOMA and the BFI National Archive. To mark its 75th year, the BFI took the interesting decision to try and recreate part of a programme of the Film Society. The Film Society was formed in London in 1925 by a bunch of radicals led by the Hon. Ivor Montagu, which eventually included such notables as Anthony Asquith, Iris Barry, Sidney Bernstein, Roger Fry, Julian Huxley, Augustus John, Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. The Society (the first of its kind in the world) put on films of artistic, historic or political interest at the New Gallery Kinema in Regent Street, often showing films from the USSR which had been refused a licence by the British Board of Film Censorship (they could do so because the films were shown to members of a private club). The Film Society had a huge influence on British film culture, and after it ceased operating in 1939 its collection went to the BFI.

On 10 November 1929 the members of the Society witnessed perhaps the most remarkable film programming coup ever – the world premiere of John Grierson’s Drifters, the cornerstone of the British documentary movement, and the UK premiere of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, plus James Sibley Watson’s avant garde classic The Fall of the House of Usher (USA 1928) and Walt Disney’s Barn Dance (USA 1929). Now that’s programming.

Drifters (1929)

Audiences were made of sterner stuff in 1929, because we were only shown the first two. Drifters (UK 1929) is one of those classics more cited than seen and those who have seen it generally did years ago. Looking at it again after twenty years in my case, it is a work that easily merits its high reputation. It documents the work herring fishermen, and by its Soviet-inspired use of montage combined with a very British tatse for understated realism it immediately stands out from any other film of actuality produced in the UK (or anywhere else) to that date. One understands why its effect on audiences at the time was so electric, and why it did indeed inspire a whole school of documentary filmmaking.

However, it is also an odd film. It falls into three parts. The first, where the fishermen go out to sea, is in classic documentary style, showing man pitted against the elements, elevated (but not excessively ennobled) by toil. Part two, the night-time sequence, is strange. The fishermen sleep, but in the seas beneath we see the herring shoals swimming to and fro, menaced by dogfish. What has this to do with documentary? It tells us nothing of the people involved. Are we mean to gain insight into the lives of the fish? What is going on? It’s a sequence that dosn’t seem to get discussed much in studies of Drifters, yet here is the archetypal Griersonian documentary, and at its heart it slips into a strange, blue-tinted reverie, a fisherman’s dream. Part three is where the catch is taken to harbour, with often exhilaratingly scenes of commerce, industrialisation and human interaction. As Russell Merritt notes in the Giornate catalogue, “Grierson claimed the sequence was pointed social critique, exposing capital’s exploitation of the workers”. It is no such thing. It is unabashed championing of the power of the marketplace. Grierson the instinctive filmmaker was not the political filmmaker that he thought that he should be – he was too good for that.

Do you really need my thoughts on Bronenosets Potemkin (Battleship Potemkin) (USSR 1925)? As probably the most discussed film in history outside of Citizen Kane, I guess not. It was an odd way of celebrating the anniversary of the BFI National Archive, especially as the print came from the Deutsche Kinemathek, but it was enriching to compare and contrast with Drifters. It’s a film that disappointed me greatly when I first saw it (with the original Edmund Meisel score), probably because I was so expecting to be impressed and because of the absence of conventional narrative. As a story, it hasn’t got much going for it. As cinematic posturing, particularly as one of a planned series of films celebrating the 1905 revolution, it makes absolute sense. Every scene is overplayed, but it is always compelling to watch. There is not a dull composition in it.

And that was enough for a Sunday. I did see the first twenty minutes or so of Dmitri Buchowetski’s Karusellen (Sweden 1923), which looked fabulous. but I was sceptical of any story where a circus sharpshooter somehow is able to afford a vast country house and where the happily married wife instantly falls for a stranger because that’s what always happens with strangers. Enough of such artificiality – give me the kine-truth of documentary, and better still the unvarnished simplicity of actuality. For all of the canonical classics on show, the film of the day was a plain record of tribal dances from the Amazonian forest in 1916. So often the simplest is best.

Pordenone diary 2010 – day one
Pordenone diary 2010 – day three
Pordenone diary 2010 – day four
Pordenone diary 2010 – day five
Pordenone diary 2010 – day six
Pordenone diary 2010 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2010 – day eight

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