Loco/Motion

The Nineteenth Century Studies Association is holding its 34th annual conference at Fresno, California, 7-9 March 2013. The conference is entitled Loco/Motion and will explore the theme of travel and transport in the long nineteenth century (1789-1914, in case you weren’t sure). The call for papers asks for papers and panels that “capture the sense of movement at work and at play”.

As the Of Victorian Interest blog reports, there is to be a specific panel on pre-cinema and early film:

As part of the 2013 NCSA conference, Arnold Anthony Schmidt is seeking papers or presentations for one or more panels about pre-cinema and early film technology, as well as on silent film creators (producers, actors, directors) and images (representations of class, culture, gender, or race) produced anywhere before 1914. Film – i.e. “moving pictures” — fits neatly into the conference theme of Locomotion, which I interpret very broadly.

If they like, scholars might address the theme literally (treating images of travel and physical movement) or metaphorically (e.g. technical evolution; camera movement; narrative or character development; cultural, historical, or psychological change). Feel free to email me if you have questions about the appropriateness of a topic for presentation.

Those interested are invited to e-mail 250-word abstracts of 20-minute papers and one-page CV to Arnold Anthony Schmidt at aschmidt@csustan.edu by 30 September 2012. They hope to include screenings at the conference (as of course they should), so applicants should include details of materials they might wish to show.

On location

Well, this is good to see. Having bemoaned the fact that there were few silent film-related conferences on the horizon, here’s news of another. It’s the Second International Berkeley Conference on Silent Cinema, happily building on the promise of the First from last year. It’s entitled On Location, and the conference runs 21-23 February 2013 at the University of California Berkeley, with complementary film screenings at the Pacific Film Archive. The call for papers has just been issued, and here it is:

Call for Papers

Format: A two-and-a-half day conference that combines plenary lectures, concurrent paper panels, workshops, and film screenings with live accompaniment at the Pacific Film Archive.

Concept: This conference will address the emergence and historical development of “location” as a cinematic concept as it underwent a series of important transformations in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Concepts of location have become more interesting in recent years as digital artists increasingly render well-known and entirely fictional urban and natural landscapes using sophisticated digital tools. Studio sets have given way to green-screen spaces, and iconic landmarks are subject to new forms of digital manipulation. Reflection on contemporary media practices has created intellectual curiosity about the idea of cinematic place as a historical phenomenon in all of its various manifestations.

During the silent era, filming moved from interiors to exteriors, and from low-tech production sites such as the Black Maria to studio cities like Cité Elgé, Babelsberg, and Universal City. Whereas some national and regional cinemas became closely associated with natural location settings, others were identified with the manufacture of locations through in-studio simulations or the effects of montage— “creative geography” in the widest sense. In turn, location-dependent genres such as Westerns, travelogues, ethnographic films, documentaries, and city films developed specific attachments to place. Exhibition locations shifted from vaudeville theatres to nickelodeons to picture palaces and from urban centers to small towns. Hollywood’s simultaneous development as a real and imagined place affected models for studio filmmaking and cinematic geography around the world.

This conference asks: How was the idea of “location shooting” developed alongside and sometimes in opposition to “studio set”? When and how did “location” emerge as a complex site of production, a lure for audiences, a generic rubric, and a guarantee of realism, as well as a site of artifice and fantasy? How was the cinematic articulation of a broad range of locations influenced by pictorial traditions such as the picturesque, landscape painting, and photography? What are the social and political implications of these varied sites of production and exhibition?

We welcome proposals from scholars in a variety of disciplines and will consider both silent-era and historically comparative approaches. International perspectives are especially welcome.

Possible lines of inquiry include but are not limited to:

  • Audience localities
  • Hybrid exhibition places and practices
  • The historical development of “on-location” shooting
  • “Universal geographies” (as in: California contains all landscape types)
  • “Creative” geographies (as in: Kuleshov’s montage-produced “artificial landscape”)
  • Shooting locations vs. studio locales
  • “Site-specific” film aesthetics and practices
  • Ethnographic framing of film location
  • The phenomenology of the film set (tricks, facades, mixed-media mise-en-scène)
  • The production of place through genre
  • Imaginary places/animation locations
  • Censorship and locality
  • Studio cities
  • The registration and production of landmark locations
  • The locations of film distribution
  • The relationship between “diegesis” and “location” in film-analytic discourses
  • Depth, stereoscopy, and place
  • “Place” as enduring history in psycho-geography

Submission process: Proposals should include a title, an abstract (500 words max), a short bio (150 words max), and mention of any A/V needs. The papers themselves will be limited to 20 minutes, including any audio-visual material. Proposals should be submitted by October 15, 2012 to theconference@berkeley.edu, with notification by mid-November.

So there you are. Get scribbling (if you are so inclined), and let’s hope that the Berkeley conference becomes an established part of the silent film studies landscape.

Hot off the presses

It’s time for one of our occasional round-ups of recent publications on silent film, though one or two have been around for a few months now, and not all are directly about silent films – but that’s what makes them interesting.

Rin Tin Tin – The Life and the Legacy, by Susan Orlean, has already made quite an impact in the USA, with its acute mixture of nostalgia and cultural history. It tells the story of Rin Tin Tin, the German shepherd dog rescued from the trenches of WWI by Lee Duncan, whose innovative training methods led the dog to Hollywood stardom in the 1920s. Rin Tin Tin’s star waned in the 1930s, but a succession of junior Rin Tin Tins either sired or inspired by the original kept the aura going into the age of television. Orlean makes some elementary blunders about silent film history, and Lee Duncan doesn’t make for much of a hero (unlike his dog) but it is readable, wry and occasionally wise.

The Perfect Man: The Muscular Life and Times of Eugen Sandow, by David Waller, brings back to popular awareness one of the most remarkable, and certainly most famous, figures of the Late Victorian/Edwardian era, Eugen Sandow. Boddybuilder, strongman and adovcate of healthy living, he became the model of manly accomplishment for a generation. He also featured significantly in film history, being one of the very first subjects to go before the Edison Kinetoscope. He was also filmed by Biograph and even had a early film technology patent to his name. A terrific biography of someone whose life story illuminates the age in which he lived.

Silent Films! The Performers, by Paul Rothwell-Smith, is a self-published biographical guide to 3,700 performers from the silent era. This heroic undertaking was inspired by the author’s attendance at the British Silent Film Festival when it was held at the Broadway cinema in Nottingham. Rothwell-Smith is as interested in lesser-known names from the nether reaches of British film history as he is in those familiar to us all, and the book makes a bold statement of intent by having Clara Bow and Fred ‘Pimple’ Evans, knockabout British comedian of the 1910s, share equal billing on the front cover. I’ve not seen it, but the sheer scale of the endeavour commands respect.

Photography, Early Cinema and Colonial Modernity: Frank Hurley’s Synchronized Lecture Entertainments, by Robert Dixon, adds significantly to our understanding of how motion pictures were presented that weren’t conventional cinema fare. As historians are increasingly uncovering, as as the Bioscope has tried to document, the multimedia show which brought together photography, films, music and live lecturer was widespread throughout the silent era, being used in particular for recouting true tales of adventure and exploration. Frank Hurley was cinematographer for the Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson and Ernest Shackleton, and the book documents the ‘synchronised lectures entertainments’ (Hurley’s words) made out of these adventures, as well as the later Sir Ross Smith’s Flight and Hurley’s dramatised documentary of life in Papua New Guinea, Pearls and Savages. The book is aimed at the scholars, but there are lessons for all of us, because we still haven’t got our film history right – we keep focussing too much upon the films.

Col. William N. Selig, the Man Who Invented Hollywood, by Andrew A. Erish, published later this month, is a biography of a producer strangely neglected by film history. Selig was a magician and minstrel show operator, who encountered the Kinetoscope in 1896 and realised that motion pictures were for him. He was a notorious duper of other companies’ films in the early years, but moced to Hollywood, produced pioneering westerns and serials (The Adventures of Kathlyn in 1913) and specialised in animal pictures, with recourse to his own studio zoo. He was one of the most enterprising and colourful characters in early cinema, and this book’s bold and not wholly bogus subtitle ought to get people talking about him again.

Pordenone diary 2011 – day six

Image of Buster Keaton from the Giornate del Cinema Muto’s trailer, animated by Richard Williams

We have reached day six of our reports on the 2011 Pordenone silent film festival (Thursday October 6th for those of you taking notes), and our undercover reporter The Mysterious X is showing no signs of flagging as he enters the Teatro Verdi once more…


Crumbs, Thursday already … in at 9.00am for a Disney short, Tommy Tucker’s Tooth (USA 1922) a semi-animated children’s instructional on dental hygiene. Neatly done, but the main point of interest now is that the healthily-grown kid with the good teeth of 1922 would today be being filmed at an obesity clinic, with a stern voiceover …

Then Klostret I Sendomir (The Secret of the Monastery) (Sweden 1920), a Victor Sjöström costume drama, part of The Canon Revisited strand. An elderly penitent monk tells a pair of guests the tale of the monastery’s foundation, by an Earl who discovers the betrayal of his wife’s adultery with her own cousin, and that his beloved son was not actually his. Confronting her, she initially deflects the affair onto her maid, before being given a choice; either she kills the kid, or she dies. Unexpectedly, she goes to do just that, but the Earl stops her at the last second; not doing so was her last chance of redemption, she is told, and she is duly despatched with the same dagger she was going to use. The son (who had already survived an earlier attempt at defenestration by the Earl) is taken to a woodcutter with some funds, and we are told the Earl sells up and founds the monastery. There is then a twist ending, that you can see coming from about five minutes from the start of the film.

It’s a competent enough film, but not vintage Sjöström. The actresses playing the countess and her maid were excellent, and stole the film despite – or perhaps because – they were playing irredeemable characters.

Tragedy of a different kind followed; the newly restored The Great White Silence (UK 1924) presented with live piano from Gabriel Thibaudeau, as opposed to the modern and not uncontroversial score on the BFI release (which I think is fine, personally). Gabriel, class act that he is, did a fabulous job on it.

Herbert Ponting’s documentary account of the doomed 1910-12 Scott Antarctic expedition looks stunning on the big screen – and despite being out commercially it drew a large and appreciative house. And the end is no less affecting for knowing it all in advance. It’s only now I’m wondering quite how the endtitles with their “Dulce et Decorum est” message would have played to the 1924 audiences, then fully aware of the futility of WW1, and not just the carnage.

Sound film!!! Sound on film at that … but from 1922, and Denmark, the experiments of pioneer Sven Berglund (Tonaufnahmen Berglund), who had demonstrated synchronised sound-on-film using two strips of 35mm the year before.

These were presented visually, multiple vertical lines varying in thickness with the volume, I assumed, looking like something from Len Lye; while the sound, read by laser in a lab and re-recorded on to the now-standard format, played out. As the film progressed we hear distant voices, distant music, until eventually, and very clearly, we get an English (American?) male voice reciting The Lord’s Prayer. For ’22, very impressive.

As was an unscheduled re-screening of Le Voyage dans la lune (France 1902) with a more traditional piano accompaniment from Donald Sosin. Yep, that was much more like it. (Take your word for it. – Ed.)

Poster for Eliso(USSR 1928), from http://www.cinematurkey.com

After lunch, and in for Eliso (Georgia SSR 1928), the day’s Georgian film; and the best of all of a very good bunch. Set again amongst the peoples of the high, remote mountains, but this time during the Tsarist era, this was a tale of love against religious divides, of cultural identity (positively – this was two years before Khabarda) as well as an element of “This is how bad it used to be”.

During a period of Russian expansionism a Moslem Chechen village is being deported en masse to Turkey to make way for Kazakhs; the scion of a nearby Christian village, in love with a Moslem girl, offers to help; the decision was a corrupt one. After a neat swordplay sequence worthy of Doug Sr. himself, our hero forces the general to cancel the deportation – but it has already started, after an ambitious couple tricked the village, into signing a petition for deportation thinking they were doing the opposite. The hero’s Moslem girlfriend is sent back from the caravan to burn their old village, to deprive the Kazakhs of its free use, nearly killing him in the process, as he was searching for her there. Back with the villagers, a woman dies in childbirth; this starts a a state of mourning, exacerbated by their miserable situation. Then a remarkable thing, and a remarkable sequence, happens. The village leader, elderly but striking and dignified, starts to dance: I read it as as a moment of supreme defiance; we have lost everything except what we can carry, and our culture, our identity. And we dance.

Slowly, very slowly, the tearing of hair stops. They watch him. A musician starts playing; hands are clapped; more dancers start. Gradually – five minutes perhaps – it becomes the most exhilarating dance sequence you’ve ever seen, young and old, male and female, hand-held camera roaming amongst them, the pace of the editing accelerating until the climax of sub-second flashed images. It actually surpasses the famous Coalhole sequence in Kean. All credit to the musicians; Günter Buchwald, Romano Todesco and Frank Bockius roared away, absolutely nailing the sequence. Please, someone, book this combination again; the topicality of the film, and the power the musicians bring to it, would wow any festival.

And straight into the second programme of Japanese animation; generally excellent, but not quite reaching the heights of Programme 1 … it mainly concerned the work of Noburi Ofuji, who used the cut-out technique applied to Chiyugami, the traditional Japanese printed paper, to create his comic characters. Pioneering, quirky and fun, also using sound-on-disc in the late silent period (or possibly animating to pre-existing records, I was none too clear) but they didn’t grab me as deeply. Others, from Ogino, were abstract patterns animated; very reminiscent of European avant-garde animation art of the thirties, the colour examples were, for want of a better word, particularly trippy. The final item was a 1937 Kodascope ‘How it’s Made’ short, Shiksai Manga No Dekiru Made (Japan 1937) showing cel animation in Japan. A good end to a fascinating strand … potentially the last Japanese strand as little remains that hasn’t been seen here over the years.

Despite my interest in early aviation I skipped the one-hour documentary on Santos-Dumont’s 50-second Mutoscope reel of him and Charles Rolls together, Santos Dumont Pré-cinesta? (Brazil 2010) … I expect Mr Urbanora to be aghast at such negligence, given his equal interest in the subject. (I am shocked. And saddened.- Ed.)

Evening, and a Disney, Jack the Giant Killer (USA 1923), before Fiaker nr. 13 (Fiacre No. 13) (Austria/Germany 1926), a Michael Kertesz/Curtiz film set in Paris despite its Austrian/German co-production status. This was a film with real charm, easily the best of the strand, and much more the sort of film to get you noticed by Hollywood; a melodramatic tale of the abandoned baby, daughter of a millionaire who doesn’t know she exists, but has been trying to find her now-dead mother. The girl grows up as the daughter of the horse-cab driver who found her. Apart from the charm, it features wonderful performances from the character actors, great atmosphere and excellent use of the Paris locations – it was highly reminiscent of Feyder classics like Crainquebille – my highest praise.

Thomas Meighan (right) in The Canadian (USA 1926), from http://www.silentfilmstillarchive.com

The last film was a real treat too; from perennially underrated William Beaudine, The Canadian (USA 1926); a drama, but with seriously good comic elements within. Set in the broad wheatfields of Alberta, its subject is the problems and practicalities of marriage in small disparate communities, where your nearest neighbour may be a day’s ride away. Thomas Meighan, his name above the title, is the foreman at a friend’s spread, but although he has his own smallholding sorted out, it’s not quite ready.

The farmer has a sister, coming over to live with him having lost the last of her English family; she is unused to both the more basic farm life, and to doing anything practical; when called upon to help out in the kitchen, she is not just clueless, but can’t help giving the impression that it’s all rather beneath her. After clashes – epic, and with some killer lines – with the sister-in-law played by the wonderful Dale Fuller, with the harvest in, and the foreman announcing his departure, she takes a surprising step; the sister offers to be his wife if he will take her away. They marry, and the tone of the film changes utterly. It becomes The Wind – without the wind. The parallels are extraordinary – and this is two years before the Sjöström classic. Here, the physical rejection of the husband is followed (we assume) by a rape perpetrated by the husband rather than a third party; there is a similar comic-relief cowhand, here played by a nearly young Charles Winninger; there is a crisis where hubby rides to the rescue in both films; and a similar Damascene conversion in the wives’ attitude when both farmers have raised funds to send them away.

The Canadian beat The Wind to the screen; one wonders which source novel was published first … and then we remember that The Wind‘s happy ending is not in the novel at all. The acting in The Canadian is solid, believable, but doesn’t have the grandeur of Gish and Hanson; but highly recommended if you’re interested in the prolific career of William Beaudine, who made great films in all sorts of genres, and yet doesn’t receive very much attention.


Sterling stuff once again from our sharp-eyed reporter. Look out soon for the report on day seven (the penultimate day), when we shall discover Lily Damita wearing not much more except jewellery, Eleonora Duse in a bonnet, Gene Gauniter in Ireland, and not one but two Betty Compsons.

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

Pordenone diary 2011 – day two

The top of the Teatro Verdi, Pordenone

Domenica. Dawn. The sun is already beating down warmly as we head out after breakfast for a long’s day’s viewing. It may be like high summer outside, but we are scheduled to spent most of it in a darkened theatre, absorbed in the extraordinarily various worlds of silent cinema revealed in day two of the Giornate del Cinema Muto. So let the adventure begin.

Some years ago the festival put on a notable programme of silent Walt Disney films, starting with the Alice comedies. In 2011 we go back further, to Uncle Walt’s first-ever films, the Laugh-o-Grams series. In 1920 Disney was a 19-year-old commercial artist working for an advertising company in Kansas City. He approached a local exhibitor, Frank Newman, with the idea of producing a cartoon filler for Newman’s cinema chain. This first film, Newman Laugh-o-Gram (USA 1921), is a rudimentary but spirited local newsreel, starting with live film of Disney himself at his desk, then turning to comic comments on local issues (crime, fashions, the state of the roads), done as lightning sketches except for a final item when there is genuine animation – one of the few examples in his entire oeuvre done by Disney alone. The Laugh-o-Gram series would continue for another two years, but Disney shifted from newsreel to modernised fables, and these are what we are to see throughout the Giornate.

Next up, The Race to the Pole. The Giornate’s Antarctic exploration strand is to give us two programmes of short films and two documentary features over the week, covering Man’s urgent quest to explore Antarctica and to become the first to reach the South Pole. I am reminded of Raymond Durgnat’s withering four-word assessment of the 1953 documentary The Conquest of Everest – “as if it mattered”. Well, of course it didn’t really matter, and despite much insistence (some of it sincere) that they were heading south for the best of scientific purposes, so much of this activity was vaingorious, driven by national pride and a quest for personal glory by some of exploration’s most stubborn – but also most interesting – men.

We will be seeing the two most stubborn and most interesting of them all, Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton, later in the week. This morning we have a collection of shorts which shows just how much polar activity there was worldwide, and how popular films were of such expeditions (the films often having been made in the hope that their commercial success would help offset expedition expenses). First up is The Scottish Antarctic Expedition (GB 1902-04), briefly documenting William Spiers Bruce’s scrupulously scientific expedition to Antarctica. Bruce captured ice floating by and a penguin rookery before his camera jammed – just enough to give us two emblematic shots which will now recur in all the other Antarctic films we are to see.

Ernest Shackleton appears, albeit only as a dot on the horizon, in Depature of the British Antarctic Expedition from Lyttleton N.Z. 1st Jan. 1908 (New Zealand 1908). This newsreel shows Shackleton’s ship Nimrod sailing south, waved goodbye by excited crowds and followed by a flotilla of ships. Shackleton would get to within 97 miles of the Pole before being forced to return.

Sledging into the distance, from Roald Amundsens Sydpolsferd 1910-12

The explorer who first made it furthest south was of course Roald Amundsen. Thanks to its recent DVD release and recognition by UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, Roald Amundsens Sydpolsferd 1910-12 (Roald Amundsen’s South Pole Expedition) (Norway 1912) has become not only familiar but iconic, after years when the only familiar Anatarctic exploration images were those taken of Scott and Shackleton. Filmed by Amundsen himself and Kristan Prestrud, the sixteen-minute film does not reached the aesthetic heights achieved by Herbert Ponting (for Scott) or Frank Hurley (for Shackleton), but its matter-of-factness echoes the clear-headed, sensible – and of course successful – approach undertaken by the Norwegians. On two occasions the images haunt us – where a silhouetted Norwegian with pipe comically confronts an emperor penguin, and towards the end when their sledges pulled by dogs disappear into the white dstance, heading away from us as they move to the top of the frame and the camera remains fixed.

However, though the print was poor, the film of the programme for me is Nihon Nankyoku Tanken (Japan 1912). It was crowded in Antarctica around 1910-1912. There were expeditions from Britain, Australian, Norway and Japan. The latter, led by Lieutenant Nobu Shirase mostly explored the coastal areas and did not make any attempt on the Pole, but they were excitedly acclaimed as heroes on their return, and the film is constructed as a paean to noble endeavour, with a strong nationalist tone, glorifying what were really relatively humble achievements. “Japan has left its imprint on the Antarctic continent”, it boasts. It is also interesting for the opening scenes where we are shown the equipment, and then each of the members of the expedition, with their names. No other polar exploration film of the period does this, amazingly enough, given the huge human interest in such adventures. It even names the ship’s accountant. The footage on the ice, shot by Yasunao Taizumi, is not particularly impressively, but fascinatingly the catalogue notes by leading polar film authority Jan Anders Diesen reveal that some of the footage, showing four men pulling a sledge and pitching a tent, does not feature the type of sledge used by Shirase’s expedition. There is a possibility that these shots could come from the otherwise lost film of Shackleton’s 1907-09 Nimrod expedition, which was being sold by Gaumont in 1909. It would be wonderful if this could be confirmed.

A newsreel follows, Pathé’s Animated Gazette no. 140 (UK 1911) which has a brief item of the dogs used in Douglas Mawson’s expedition, included among such delightful newsreel mundanities as ship launches, parades, and Kingston regatta. Mawson, who led Australian’s Antarctic expedition (previously described on the Bioscope), took with him the photographer Frank Hurley, who was still learning his craft as a polar filmmaker and would go on to greater things working with Ernest Shackleton. Nevertheless, the two sequences from Mawson’s surviving films, shown as [The Film of the Mawson Australasian Expedition] (Australia 1911-12), demonstrate great skill and enterprise from Hurley, particularly in a sequence where the explorers venture out into a fierce wind yet Hurley’s camera remains steady throughout, his sense of composition acute. Mawson’s films were presented in lecture format over 1914-16 and lecture scripts survive. The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia are reconstructing the films in their lecture format, and we see the films intercut with slides (which do indeed slide in an out as they would have been shown at the time) and commentary (recorded by Quentin Tournor) and no music. It is instrutive and effective, and there needs to be more of this sort of archaeological reconstruction of the lecture films of the period, because some of the most popular ‘films’ of our period were actually multimedia amalgamations – films, slides, music, commentary – in a form which we could say was more televisual than cinematic. Neil Brand and I had a stab at it recreating part of With Allenby in Egypt and Lawrence in Arabia (1919), but the Mawson’s scripts seem to have the crucial details of what film clip and what slide goes where. And so do any other such lecture film scripts survive?

Anyway, the polar film programme part 1 has been excellent, and it is interesting to see it watched by a full and attentive audience. Only a few years ago a programme of non-fiction films might be guaranteed to empty the Verdi, but good programming and supporting information is paying off.

Betty Amman in Asphalt, from http://www.film-daily.com

The Giornate’s Canon Revisited strand brings back classics for re-evaluation. There are times when the majority of us are left scratching our heads because we have not heard of said classics, it being a long time since we last read The Film Till Now. But we have all heard of Joe May’s Asphalt (Germany 1929) and we sit back in expectation of a treat. And we are not disappointed. It is as classic as they come. It sets up the city street setting with polished skill, gradually leading us into the life of a young traffic policeman with doting parents who captures a woman jewel thief only to be seduced by her. Her lover then returns, the young man kills him by accident in a fight, but (somewhat improbably) he avoids imprisonment when she turns honest for the first time and says that the killing was self-defence, and that she is guilty of the jewel theft. But the story is not the point – it is the truthfulness to the way people act out their lives before one another, the truthfulness of the policeman’s spoken and unspoken understanding of things in the scenes with his parents. It is a film that finds out all the shades of grey between good and bad. An exceptional film, given an appropriately nuanced piano accompaniment by Gabriel Thibaudeau which was much applauded.

And then it is back to Georgia for Mzago da Gela (Georgia SSR 1934, though made in 1930), another film directed by Lev Push, this time in collaboration with Shalva Khuskivadze. This shows the remote Khevsur people, whose exotic mountainside lives are interrupted by visting tourists who bring with them a magical invention, radio. A young couple, recently married, react differently to this insight into modernity. She leaves for the big city of Tiblisi; he stays behind and broods, before going to look for her. The scenes of the two of them in traditional costume wandering lost through the modern town with everyone staring at them turn the film from drama into documentary. Then, alas, the propaganda takes over, because they have to be seen to both embrace the forward-looking Soviet Union, so she runs a dairy and he becomes a radio engineer. A free film would have been able to explore the tensions between the traditional and the modern with greater richness.

Goodness, it is only midday. We break for lunch, rejoicing in the warmth, then return for two Italian dramas. Il Veleno delle Parole (Italy 1913) is a tale of slander and innocence, quite competently done, but La Serpe (Italy 1920) is an over-wrought bore, with Francesca Bertini putting on the diva mannerisms when that style of performance was some years out of date. Italian films sadly lost their way in the 1920s; they try so hard and achieve so little.

The Giornate has been encouraging local schools to contribute music scores to silents and then perform them to us, so we get American comedies with recorders, percussion, sound effects and the teacher playing the piano and it all works rather well. Disney’s Oh Teacher! (USA 1927), featuring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was nicely done, and Buster Keaton’s The Electric House (USA 1922) was fun, once they’d got the DVD working (a really indistinct image, alas). It’s a curious film, not quite understanding what this new phenomenon of electricity is (by mistake Buster gets to wire up someone’s home electrically and all of the gadgets go haywire when a real electrical engineer takes his revenge), not sufficiently consistent in the gags it draws from the situation.

Then we get SpilimBrass, a five-piece brass ensemble playing to Chalie Chaplin’s The Adventurer (USA 1917) and Easy Street (USA 1917). They are excellent – spiritied, witty, and perfectly attuned to the needs of the films. The Adventurer must be the perfect comedy; Easy Street is not so funny (what film so honest about violence, poverty and degradation could be?) but it packs in more human observation in twenty minutes than some social historians have achieved in a lifetime.

We decide to forgo a modern documentary on Hungarian cinema and stumble out into the early evening for supper. The third and final screening session of this long day begins at 8.30, and the Verdi is full as everyone eagerly awaits the headline attraction. Firstly we get another Disney Laugh-o-Gram, Little Red Riding Hood (USA 19220, a rudimentary but nevertheless delightful modernisation of the fairy tale. There are quite a lot of repeated actions and other such animation short-cuts, but we can see Walt and his team learning their craft and enjoying doing so. A Hole in the Bucket (USA 2010) is one of the modern silent shorts that the Giornate generously finds space for, though the results tend to be mixed. American film student Rex Harsin has developed a Chaplin-like character he calls Purdie. Alas he does not have Chaplin’s years of experience on the variety stage before he ever stepped in front of a camera. No one laughs.

The Better Man (USA 1912) is a routine Vitagraph Western, most interesting for being one of the horde of American films repatriated from New Zealand and for having the money for its restoration provided by the For the Love of Film blogathon, which gets a welcome mention in the credits.

Clara Bow says come hither, in Mantrap

And then the crowd get what they having been looking forward to all day, Mantrap (USA 1926), starring Clara Blow. It is being shown as part of the Treasures of the West strand, marking the recent 5-DVD set release of films on Western themes by the National Film Preservation Foundation. Mantrap is probably Clara Bow’s best film, despite the silly story and unlikely setting (she marries dull hulk Ernest Torrence and joins in the Canadian wilderness with no one to talk to except Percy Marmont). The camera loves her, and she loves the camera, never more so than for the iconic shot where she beckons Marmont (and by implication all of us watching) with her curled finger. It’s not much of a film, to be honest; a good cast is given too little to do, wisecracking intertitles becomes wearisome after a while, and its teasing attempt at challenging conventional morality when Clara cheerfully ditches her husband for Marmont is squashed when she returns to Torrence as the dutiful wife, after a breezy spell in Minneapolis. It could have been a proto-feminist film, but it’s Victor Fleming directing, and it isn’t.

The parting of the Red Sea in Die Sklavenkönigin, a screengrab from Nitrateville

Phew, it’s been a long day. Nineteen films, three of them features, and now here’s a fourth to round off the day. Another strand at the Giornate is Before Curtiz, the films the great Michael Curtiz made before he went to Hollywood, when he was Mihály Kertész from Hungary. I’ve long wanted to see Die Sklavenkönigin (Moon of Israel) (Austria 1924), not least for its British connection since it was part-funded by British company Stoll Film Studios, with H. Rider Haggard writing the intertitles for what was an adaptation of his novel Moon of Israel. Alas, the old saying ‘A Stoll film is a dull film’ never rang truer. It’s a tale of the Israelites in slavery in Egypt being led to freedom by Moses, though the lead figure is an Israelite slave girl with Mosaic-like authority who falls in love with an Egyptian prince.

Because it says so in the film histories then I have to accept it must be partially true, but I really do find it hard to credit that Maria Corda was ever popular. Plain, heavily-built, and as lacking in star quality as she is in any acting ability, she kills the film stone dead. Yet it apparently was designed as a star vehicle on acount of her great popularity with German and Austrian auiences following the films she had made with husband Alexander Korda. Her co-star, the Chilean Adelqui Millar, is no less wooden, though having seen the ludicrous hairstyle devised for him by the wardrobe department, perhaps he just gave up from the start and was merely grateful for the cheque at the end of it. There is some interest in how the Jews are presented not entirely sympathetically, with their tendency to violence contrasting with the gentle Egyptian prince who becomes Pharoah, and the parting of the Red Sea is genuinely impressive – achieved, the catalogue tells us, “by combining double exposure of the negative with an ingenious mechanical device that launched 50 cubic metres of water over a scale model”. In the end Corda has to die to avoid the a-historical embarassment of a Jew married to an Egyptian pharoah. A film more endured than enjoyed.

It’s been a long day; it’s been a long post. Look out for the report from day three, when we shall encounter an underground printing press, bourgeois Japanese insects, a kiss on the roof of the Alhambra, and the woman who painted a famous red flag.

Pordenone diary 2011 – day one
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

First flight

Seven frames from an otherwise lost film of British aviator Percy Pilcher, flying his ‘Hawk’ glider on 20 June 1897

We were discussing ‘first’ films the other day, and warning of the dangers of lapsing into ‘firstism’ when it comes to films. Too often asking “what was the first such-and-such film?” “what was the first film to …?” is the wrong question to ask, because it presupposes that film forms and subjects that we understand now were understood in the same way when films were being created for the first time. Moreover, no sooner do you announce that such and such a film was the first whatever then someone is bound to pop up and tell you of one that is earlier.

But the heck, it’s still a fun game to play. So here we present to you what may be the first film of human flight. The film – or rather the mere seven frames of the film that survive reproduced in the journal Nature from 12 August 1897 – shows the pioneering British aviator Percy Pilcher (1866-1899) taking off from a hillside, probably outside Eynsford, for 20 June 1897. The glider was one of his own construction, named ‘The Hawk’, and you can just make out that it is being towed as the aviator takes to the air. I have animated the seven frames and repeated them several times, since the action naturally lasts for less than a second. It is not known how long the original film was (it seems to have been made as a scientific record, not as a commercial release).

Aviation enthusiast and photographer William J.S. Lockyer (who may have taken the film) wrote in Nature about the particular point of the action that we see in these seven frames.

The start was made at a given signal, the line being pulled by three boys, and Mr. Pilcher gradually left the ground, and soarred gracefully into the air, attaining a maximum height of about 70 feet. After covering a distance of about 180 yards the line suddenly parted, a knot having slipped. The only apparent difference this made was that the operator began now to slowly descend, his motion in the horizontal direction being somewhat reduced. A safe and graceful landing was made at a distance of 250 yards from the starting-point. the photographs illustrate that part of the flight previous to the attainment of the greatest height.

The film records Pilcher’s first public demonstration of one of his gliders, with a party of scientists having been present to witness the occasion. On the same day Pilcher’s cousin Dorothy also flew the Hawk, in what is believed to be the first instance of a woman operating a heavier-than-air aircraft. It is said that she was being filmed as well when she crashed into the cinematograph operator. I do hope this is true and not just a good story.

Percy Pilcher would die in a crash flying the same glider two years later, aged just 32. Poignantly, Lockyer’s account tells us not only that “in these attempts it must not be forgotten that there is always a certain amount of danger” but adds the following hint of what might have been:

Mr. Pilcher now proposes to employ, as soon as possible, a small and light engine indicating about four hourse-power, this being considerably more than sufficient for flights of moderate length … With this improvement it is hoped that further distances will be covered, and a nearer approximation to a flying machine will be attained.

A true flying machine to make real the dream of powered flight would finally be achieved by the Wright brothers in 1903. We don’t know if Pilcher could ever have put his dreams into reality, but it is likely that he was the first human to be shown in flight on film. The Lumières filmed a balloonist taking off the following year in 1898 (Départ d’une montgolfière, cat.no. 998) and a view of the ground below filmed from that balloon – probably the first example of aerial cinematography (Panorama pris d’un ballon captif, cat. no. 997).

The view from the air provided by Panorama pris d’un ballon (1898), from Die Kunst zu Fliegen in Film und Fotografie (Düsseldorf: NRW-Forum Kultur und Wirtschaft, 2004)

Balloonist Alberto Santos-Dumont was filmed by a Lumière operator on 19 September 1900 precariously perched beneath his dirigible, and in 1901 was filmed by the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company in Santos Dumont’s Aerial Flight Around the Eiffel Tower and Santos Dumont Explaining his Air Ship to the Hon. C.S. Rolls The Lumière films survive; the Biograph film of Dumont in flight does not. However the film of Dumont with Rolls was recently discovered in São Paulo as a Mutoscope reel and made the subject of a thoroughly researched documentary film, Santos Dumont’s Mutoscope (2010), directed by Brazilian scholar Carlos Adriano. Rolls was a pioneering aviator himself, and the first Briton to be killed in an airplane crash, in 1910. He was also the Rolls in Rolls-Royce.

Alberto Santos-Dumont (left) and C.S. Rolls in 1901, filmed by the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company and preserved as a Mutoscope reel

Santos-Dumont was also the first person to be filmed flying an aeroplane. A fleeting film exists, taken by I know not whom on 23 October 1906, showing his 14-bis aircraft undertaking the brief but first successful flight by a fixed-wing powered aircraft in Europe. The Wright brothers’ Flyer was not filmed until it was brought to Europe in August 1908 (Wilbur made the trip with Orville following in January 1909), when the aeroplane was filmed near Le Mans. Motion pictures of the Wright Flyer in Europe greatly helped spread the word that powered flight had been achieved.

Alberto Santos-Dumont’s brief flight in the 14-bis outside Paris on 23 October 1906

Orville and Wilbur Wright stayed in France until April 1909, when they moved for a short time to Italy. There another first was achieved, though there has perhaps been no more hotly contested a first in aviation filming than the first person to film from the air. I’ve come across so many competing claims. The film below was taken in Italy from Wilbur Wright’s aircraft, on 24 April 1909 by the Italian film company Società Italiana Pineschi (ignore the erroneous 1907 date given for the clip on YouTube). It is fairly certain that it is the first film taken from an airplane (if not – as already demonstrated – the first film taken from the air).

The view from Wilbur Wright’s Flyer, 24 April 1909

If you want a rudimentary, pseudo-philosophical overview of the relationship between early film and early flight (including pre-cinema and pre-flight), there’s my essay, ‘Taking to the Air‘, on my personal website. If you are interested in investigating the links between aviation and film once the plans were up in the air and the cinematograph was able to record them more fully, it’s well worth browsing through the archives of Flight magazine, covered fully in an earlier Bioscope post. And if I’ve got my various ‘firsts’ wrong – please tell me. It’s all part of the game.

Cine-tourism

Google Map showing locations of films made in the early 1900s by R.W. Paul in the Muswell Hill and New Southgate area, produced by the Cine-Tourist

My favourite website of the moment is the Cine-Tourist. The site has been created by Roland-François Lack of University College London as a home for his studies into cinema and place. It’s a model example of how to use the Web as a home for research in forms to which the Web is best suited.

The Cine-Tourist, as Lack bills himself, is interested how films record and depend upon place, both literally and metaphorically. He demonstrates the interrelationships in a number of engrossing ways. For example, his site has sections on cities: that on Paris has 63 frame grabs from Jacques Rivette’s Paris s’en va (1981), identifying the specific locations; that on London has a series of frame grabs rather playfully showing maps that appear in films depicting police stations. That all sounds rather little bit trainspotter-ish, but in practice pinpointing the specifics of place somehow deepens the sense of depth in a film, in the way that it always leads our imagination away from the literal.

This is made clearer in the Cine-Tourist’s blog, The Daily Map, which posts daily frame grabs from a wide range of films, each showing a map significantly positioned in the background, often with an engrossing quotation underneath, from studies of image, place and cultural history. Several of the examples so far are from silent films, as in this frame still from Jean Epstein’s La chute de la Maison Usher (1928):

‘The face is a map’: frame still from La chute de la Maison Usher (1928)

There are other elements to the site, including thoughts on methodologies, a biographical account of his local cinemas, links and a helpful bibliography of “books and essays that read maps in films or films through maps or films as maps …” But I want to draw particular attention to the section Local filmmaker: local film subjects. The Cine-Tourist lives in the Muswell Hill area of London, and one hundred years ago the area was home and workspace for British pioneer filmmaker Robert W. Paul.

Paul lived and maintained a studio and film laboratories in the Muwsell Hill and New Southgate areas. The Cine-Tourist has photographed the intriguingly mundane buildings that were Paul’s homes in the area, but then has studied Paul’s films closely (both those extant and lost films nevertheless indentifiable to a degree through catalogues) and matched locations to film scenes. So far, this is much like the work done by John Bengtson at his Silent Locations blog (recently reported on by the Bioscope). The Cine-Tourist however goes further by subjecting the images to greater topographical and filmographical analysis, and by mapping the locations of some of Paul’s films of the 1900s onto Google Maps, as demonstrated at the top of this post. From this map you can go to the locations specific films, which you can additionally view on Street View or as a satellite view. Additional links take you to detailed information on Paul’s domestic and professional addresses, with further links to the London Project database on pre-First World War film businesses in London.

Robert Paul’s 1903 home ‘Malvern’, now the ‘Muswell Hill Food & Wine’,”the shop to which I go for last-minute, late-night supplies of wine and sundries” (the Cine-Tourist)

This isn’t just a piece of diverting local history. It links up the personal to the professional to the geographical to the Web. Lack begins with himself as London resident, or London traveller; traces his personal history of filmgoing and filmwatching in London (and other cities); documents this through the films in which people are themselves mapped in various ways; then brings all this together into a website which links out again to the greater world of film studies, area studies, and the co-ordinates of place in general. What it may all signify in the end, I couldn’t tell you exactly – but the journey is engrossing.

The Cine-Tourist is an example of an increasing trend in the scholarly study of the mysteries of place. Its inspiration goes back to the flâneur of 19th century Paris, the man in the crowd who was a part of the city yet by perambulating through it was somehow distanced from it, as Baudelaire described:

To be away from home and yet to find oneself everywhere at home, to be at the centre of the world, and yet remain hidden from the world.

The flâneur is a reader of the city through which he passes. Other inspirations for what has become a modern movement are Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project and the ‘situationist’ Guy Debord, who came up with the somewhat loose term ‘psychogeography’ often used to describe such preoccupations. Most recently there is the London writer Iain Sinclair, author of such richly allusive works as London Orbital (a tour of the M25 which circumnavigates London) and Lights out for the Territory, works to be found placed prominently in the London section of many a bookshop, doubtless bewildering the unsuspecting tourists who purchase them. Sinclair, like Debord, is also a filmmaker, and another member of the same ‘school’ is documentary filmmaker Patrick Keiller, whose 2007 exhibition placing images from early films onto the same locations today was covered by the Bioscope.

What is interesting is how such ramblings (literally so) have found their natural home on the Web; indeed are being encouraged by the Web, which by its very nature brings together that association of ideas that psychogeography seeks to achieve. Google Maps, Google Earth, Street View, OpenStreetMap (a free, editable world map), HistoryPin (mapping of people’s historical photos) and Geograph (a project inviting anyone to help document every square kilometre of the UK and Ireland with photographs) each encourage us to explore and share what we have explored.

London Sound Survey‘s mapping of sounds (the orange squares) from the London of today to the Booth maps of 1898, colour-coded to show levels of welath and poverty

Interestingly, many psychogeographical or semi-pyschogeographical sites are rather bad at using the Web. Among some of the better examples, check out Classic Cafes (London and seaside cafes), Derelict London (the strange poetry of abandoned corners of London), Urban Squares (city squares around the world), Mythogeography (“for walkers, artists who use walking in their art, students who are discovering and studying a world of resistant and aesthetic walking, anyone who is troubled by official guides to anywhere …”) and the excellent London Sound Survey (systematically mapping the city though its sounds).

For silent films, we are fortunate in having two outstanding examples of the use of mapping tools, though neither is strictly psychogeographical in intent. Going to the Show documents the experience of movies and moviegoing in North Carolina to the end of the silent film era, bringing together Sanborn fire insurance maps of the period and Google Maps; while Cinema Context documents cinema-going and films seen in the Netherlands, linking its database records to Google Maps and the Internet Movie Database. Both have been highly praised on these pages before now (see here and here). I shall be writing about Cinema Context again soon. For other such empirical studies of cinemas and their place, see the HOMER project website (though some of the links no longer work).

Roland-François Lack has another blog, The BlowUp moment, dedicated to frame stills showing the use of cameras in films, with a new image daily.

Go explore. Literally so.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 10

I’m going to try and revive a neglected feature, the Bioscope Newsreel. It was an irregularly issued round-up of news stories on silent films that weren’t going to make it into fully-fledged posts, and in bringing it back to life I want to expand the brief a little to include interesting new pieces writing, blog posts etc. on our silent world (and its contexts). If I’m really good I’ll make it a weekly occurence, but I won’t commit myself to that just yet. Anyway, after a gap of just under two years, here’s issue number ten:

Films in concert
Films en Concert is a two-day silent film festival being held at the Salle André Malraux, Lambersart, France 4-5 February 2011. Featuring Chaplin biographer and Pordenone director David Robinson plus Pordenone pianists Neil Brand and Touve R. Ratovondrahety, the festival focusses on Chaplin with talks, screnings and a session for school children, plus Bébé and Bout-de-Zan comedies, Jacques Feyder’s Gribiche (1926) and Chaplin’s The Circus (1928). Read more.

Female Hamlet
John Wyver of the film and video production company Illuminations writes an excellent blog on film, art and culture. His latest post is on the Asta Nielsen Hamlet (1920), recently screened at the BFI Southbank, in which the great Danish actress plays the great Dane. An observant piece from a present-day producer of Shakespeare films (Hamlet, Macbeth). Read more.

Silent and white
Michael Hogan of The Daily Telegraph reviews the TV screening of The Great White Silence, Herbert Ponting’s 1924 documentary record of the doomed Scott Antarctic expedition. Interestingly the review doesn’t look upon the film as historically quaint but simply as a record of those events equivalent to any TV polar documentary. Read more.

Film and European copyright
The EYE Film Institute of the Netherlands has produced some Guidelines for Copyright Clearance and IPR Management for the European Film Gateway project. Viewing things from the European angle, the guidelines consider copyright basics, exploitation rights, moral rights, orphan works, clearing rights in related media (stills, posters), searching for rights holders and a summary of copyright law in various European countries (though not the UK). Read more.

Lost and significant
It’s hard to say what exactly is the appeal in describing films that no one living has seen, but the Shadowlocked site has an entertaining item on ’15 historically significant “lost” films’, most of which are silent, and include Saved from the Titanic (1912), The Werewolf (1913), A Study in Scarlet (1914) and that great Bioscope favourite, Drakula halála (1921). Read more.

‘Til next time!

A perfect light

Robert Flaherty filming Nanook of the North

The relief to be out of the sun,
To have come north once more
To my islands of dark ore
Where winter is so long
Only a little light
Gets through, and that perfect.

I think this is my favourite film poem. It’s not immediately obvious that it is about film; for that you need its title and subtitle: “Epitaph for Robert Flaherty (after reading The Innocent Eye, by Arthur Calder-Marshall, in Montreal, Canada)”. It was written by the Irish poet Derek Mahon and first published in 1968 in his collection Night-Crossing (the long subtitle appeared later). It is the last two lines that are so acute: “Only a little light/Gets through, and that perfect”. Is there a better, more poetically concise summation of photographic art?

Though the poem is called an epitaph, it gives the impression of being the thoughts of Robert Flaherty, while at the same time Derek Mahon himself. The location is similarly ambiguous. Mahon references Canada in the subtitle, and with the mention of the north, “dark ore” and the long winter it seems he is thinking of the Arctic wastes where Flaherty first filmed in 1913 (on the Belcher Islands of Hudson Bay). Although Flaherty had gone out the as a prospector (for iron ore) he became fascinated by the Inuit people and was encouraged to operate a motion picture camera by the railroad entrepreneur William Mackenzie who had sponsored the prospecting work. He was dissatisfied with the results (and lost much of what he had filmed in a fire) and returned in 1920 to northern Quebec to film what became Nanook of the North (1922), a study of the lives of the Inuit and the founding statement of the art of documentary.

But Mahon the Irishman and Flaherty the Irish-American are just as much thinking of Aran, the island location of Flaherty’s 1934 documentary, Man of Aran (a sound film, but one that was shot silent). The Aran Islands, in Galway Bay, contain no dark ore, but Mahon is thinking of that deep vein of timeless culture (or an idea of that culture) that has drawn so many artists, Flaherty among them. His film notoriously documents a romantic idea of Aran, with the islanders being encouraged to recreate cultural practics (such as the shark hunt) which they had not followed for decades. For Flaherty, literal truth is less important than elemental truth.

Man of Aran, from moma.org

So, is the island of the poem in Hudson Bay or Galway Bay? The volume in which ‘Epitaph for Robert Flaherty’ appears, Night-Crossing contains a second poem, ‘Recalling Aran’), while the two poems are book-ended by ‘Canadian Pacific’ and ‘April on Toronto Island’, showing how the poet has purposefully mixed up thoughts of home and abroad. But the poem is an epitaph, and consequently about death (“out of the sun”), the island therefore being not so much an actual place as an idea of death as Ultima Thule – “death as the terminal island … with the island as ultimate art” as Edna Longley describes it), the place at the edge of the world (to give the title of another film made about remote lives).

The dilemma for the ethnographic filmmaker has always been that the camera they take with them – the symbol of modern civilization – helps bring about the destruction of that which it seeks to record (“Each man kills the thing he loves”, as another Irishman put it). Flaherty’s solution was to record the dream rather than the actuality – the idea of a pure, remote culture, rather than the compromised reality. He filmed with a poet’s eye. Derek Mahon responds with a poet’s appreciation of the filmmaker’s quest, equating the escape from the remorseless advance of the modern with the capture, out of the dark, of that elusive, perfect light.

Trailer for A Boatload of Wild Irishmen

Robert Flaherty is the subject of a new feature-length documentary, A Boatload of Wild Irishmen, directed by Mac Dara O’Curraidhin and written by Brian Winston. I ‘ve not seen it yet and don’t know if it will get shown beyond the festival circuit, but the trailer certainly whets the appetite, both to see the films again (Louisiana Story – such a beautiful film) and to learn more about a filmmaker whose vision is still so inspirational for anyone seeking out the dark ore of why it is we want to film the world at all.

Arthur Calder-Marshall’s classic biography of Flaherty, The Innocent Eye is available on the Internet Archive, and will be placed forthwith in the Bioscope Library. Nanook of the North is available on DVD from Criterion. Man of Aran is not currently available on DVD, but used copies can be easily found. Derek Mahon’s Night-Crossings is out of print, but ‘Epitaph for Robert Flaherty’, ‘Recalling Aran’ (later retitled as ‘Thinking of Inishere in Cambridge, Massachusetts’), ‘Canadian Pacific’ and ‘April in Toronto Island’ can all be found in his Collected Poems.

Pordenone diary 2010 – day five

Seating in the Verdi theatre, Pordenone

Let’s talk about seats. Given the amount of time that filmgoers spend sitting down to watch films, it surprising that the objects on which they rest while doing so seldom get discussed. Yet what the seating is and how it is arranged bear significantly upon our enjoyment of what is on the screen. I have sat on wooden chairs, benches, stone steps, sofas, armchairs, velvet plush seating, church pews and grass to watch silent films. At the Zancanaro theatre in Sacile, which was home to the Giornate del Cinema Muto for a few years, the seating was admirably comfortable so long as you were not much more than five-and-a-half-feet tall. For anyone of my height, you practically had to stretch yourself over three rows and to do so in an upper tier to avoid those neighbours who might quite reasonably object to such a display.

The seats under discussion here are those at the Verdi theatre in Pordenone. They are particularly comfortable seats. You could go a long way before finding better, and they could have been designed specifically to support the earnest silent film enthusiast determined to make it through three hours of the next Japanese film and being able to walk away afterwards. But then there is the matter of arrangement, and here is where the Verdi has its critics, certainly among film followers. The theatre was not designed for cinema screenings. This is most obvious in the first circle, where the central portion of seats has to be covered up because the heads of the audience would get in the way of the projector beam. But it is the sight-lines that cause the most comment. It’s not a matter that bothers me that much – I have an odd preference for looking at films from the periphery – but many want to have an optimum view of the screen wherever they choose to sit, and here the Verdi comes up short. So there is great competition for favourite seats, and festival regulars tend to occupy the same section of the theatre year after year. There is the front row crew (earnestly taking notes on every film), those who like to stretch their legs over the gap between rows midway up the stalls, those happiest to look down from the first circle (like yours truly, always seated front row, penultimate seat to the right as you face the screen), and the upper circle afficionados who look to escape the madding crowd (and hello to the cheery bunch of American students who occupied the central portion of the upper tier and whose enthusiasm for all that the festival had to offer was a delight to witness). As with any public space, the Verdi is wonderful for people watching.

Choosing your favourite seat at the Verdi

And so, after all that talk of seats, we turn to a different sort of furniture with the first film on Wednesday 6 October, Tretya Meshchanskaya (USSR 1927), known in English as Bed and Sofa. Directed by Abram Room, this gained much notoriety on its release for its frank depiction of a ménage à trois between a building worker, his bored wife, and his printer friend who is invited to stay in their Moscow apartment. Its piquant polygamous set-up, the uncritical acceptance of sexual relations outside marriage, and discussion of abortion make the film strikingly modern in tone (Jules et Jim without the savoir faire), but what really fascinates is the background detail and the attention to the minutiae of life. There is the vividness of everyday life on the Moscow streets, and the absorbing clutter of the apartment with its nick-nacks, pictures, the Stalin calendar, the curtain dividing one couple from the other man, and of course the bed and sofa. The film also allowed space for its characters to be seen thinking, engaging in the mundane. Though in the end the ménage à trois itself felt too forced, what remained with you was the sense of a film true to life as seen and felt.

Another Room film followed, Yevrei Na Zemle (Jews on the Land) (USSR 1927), a documentary on Jewish resettlements in a stark, flat, tree-less Crimea whose impact wasn’t what it might have been because the Russian titles weren’t translated, which meant we missed the reportedly light-hearted tone that they took.

I decided not to sit through Rejin (Japan 1930) (The Belle), which tipped the scales at a mere 158 minutes this time, but the print was poor and I reckoned my eyes needed a rest. After a mooch around Pordenone and conversations at the Posta, I returned in the afternoon for one of the great treats (for me) of the festival, a series of films made in Madagascar in 1898 (images from Cinémathèque française site). As someone who thought he knew film from the 1890s pretty thoroughly, news of a filmmaker from this period entirely new to the history books was thrilling in itself. Louis Tinayre was a French artist with a fascinting personal history (his parents were Communards). He made a speciality of paintings as reportage. He travelled with a French military force to Madagascar in 1895 when an uprising was being quelled and was fascinated by the country. He returned later in the year to make sketches and photographs, then again in 1898 to work on a giant panorama of the surrender of the town of Antananarivo which he exhibited at the Paris Exposition in 1900. But he didn’t just take his brush and canvas – he brought with him a Lumière Cinématographe.

How and why he obtained the camera is not known – he may have been filming scenes to aid his work on the panorama. Eighteen films have survived, having been presented to the Cinémathèque française by the filmmaker’s grandson in 2009. They are thrilling to see. Artfully composed, they show Madgascan people at work in fields, road building, going to market, going about their daily drudgery. We were shown thirteen of the eighteen, with these titles:

  • Chantier de terrassement à Marorangotra [Construction of terraces at Marorangotra]
  • Femmes chargeés montant et descendant une colline [Laden women going up and down a hill]
  • Environs de Tananarive. Marché à Alatsinainy [Environs of Antananarivo, capital of Madagascar. Market at Alatsinainy]
  • Labour de rizières par les boeufs [Ploughing in the paddy fields with oxen]
  • Chantier d’empierrement à Marorangotra [Constructing a road at Marorangotra]
  • Vallée [Valley]
  • Forge malgache à Marorangotra [Malagasy forge at Marorangotra]
  • La route d’Ambohimanara. Un jour de marché à Tananarive [The Ambohimanara road. A market day in Antananarivo]
  • Labour de rizières à l’Angady [Ploughing the paddy fields at Angady]
  • L’artère principale du marché à Tananarive [The main road of the market at Antananarivo]
  • Jeunes garçons fabriquant des briques [Boys making clay bricks]
  • Femmes transportant paniers près d’un ruisseau [Women carrying baskets near a stream]
  • Hommes travaillant sur un chantier [Men working on a construction]

The people were all shown in mid-distance, with never a glimpse of a face, mere figures in a landscape (possibly supporting the panorama thesis) though always displaying movement. It was the colonial gaze par excellence. The films (in wonderfully sharp prints) were utterly compelling, just to be seeing so far back, images from a remote land being filmed for the first time, revealing landscapes and customs that were centuries old and were now captured in motion. An added bonus was that the films were accompanied by Touve Ratovondrahety, a Malagasy himself, who played piano and sang Madagascan songs. The happy sense of homeland rediscovered was palpable.

Some Pordenone regulars may mutter at these early films and hanker for the emotional journey that the feature film offers, but for others the rare chance to see the early films is why we want to be there. And so we moved to the latest installment of the Corrick Collection, a remarkable collection of films from the mid to late 1900s amassed by an Australian family of touring entertainers, and now featured over a number of Giornates. The films were introduced by festival director David Robinson, who comitted an engaging faux pas when he announced the award of some medal to the New Zealand film archive for its work in preserving the collection, an award that was diplomatically collected by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, which cares for the films.

The films were the usual marvellous mix. Among the stand-out titles were Le Singe Adam (France 1909), one of the most memorable films of the whole festival, in which a trained baboon imitated the actions of its trainer to an extraordinary degree that divided up the audience equally into amused and disturbed; an unidentified British film given the title The Arrested Tricar (GB c.1905) in which three boys steal a motorcar which eludes them and drives off by itself; Don Quixote (France 1904) a meticulously recreated set of scenes by Pathé including windmills that turned into giants and an impressive alternating between studio and open-air setting, all rounded off with the habitual appearance by the Pathé dancing girls; Le Sculpteur Express (France 1907), an unusual variation on the familiar ‘lightning sketch’ form of early film, here shown a sculptor making clay faces at speed; and the delightful A Winter Straw Ride (USA 1906) showing a bobsleigh journey through the show with beautiful scenic effects.

No Rastro Do Eldorado (The Silence of the Amazon), from http://www.cinemateca.gov.br

Farsangi mámor (Hungary 1921) was a three-minute fragment of an otherwise lost Hungarian feature film which was identified after stills were published on the Lost Films site. This was followed by No Rastro Do Eldorado (Brazil 1925) (The Silence of the Amazon), a return visit to the Brazilian jungle. The film was made by Silvino Santos and documented the travels of American geographer Alexander Hamilton Rice as he mapped areas of the Amazon. The film’s presentation was unusual – there were no intertitles, instead we got a somewhat breathy female live commentary taken from Rice’s own accounts of the expedition, plus a creative multi-instrumentalist who played electronica, clarinet, percussion and guitar. Rice’s words revealed a superior attitude towards the native peoples which jarred somewhat with the poetic delivery. The film was profficient at best (though the aerial views were stunning), but the print – which was supplied by the Brazilians but came via the BFI National Archive – was awful, with very poor definition. I just hope negative material survives and that someone can try and produce something a good deal sharper.

Marizza, from http://www.ilgazzettino.it

The Giornate likes to reserve the special treats for the evening shows, and pride of place went to a thirteen-minute, seventeen-second fragment of an otherwise lost feature film, Marizza, Genannt die Schmuggler-Madonna (Germany 1921-22). The reason this was so special was because the director was F.W. Murnau. The fragment survives with Italian titles in a tinted print. It would be easy to read too much into this early work of a master, and to be honest I wonder how many would detect Murnau’s hand in a tale of a bewitching gypsy loved by a customs officer and an elegant gentleman. However, even as an anonymous fragment you would have noted the adroit handling and keen eye for the right image. It looked like we were going to get Carmen in the countryside, then all too quickly it was gone and mere speculation remained.

Next up was one of the festival special musical events, with two French films accompanied by Maud Nelissen (piano), Lucio Degani (violin) and Francesco Ferrarini (‘cello). First up, shown to Yves de la Casinière’s original score, was Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien Que Les Heures (France 1926). This venerable classic of the avant garde is an odd, beguiling work which gives an oblique view of life in Paris, mixing documentary shots with dramatised sequences. It sometimes gets labelled with the city symphonies, but it could have been set in any town or city. As the the title suggest, its real concern is time and its passing, which is the best of themes for a work of art. I’ve seen it many times and don’t think I will ever tire of it.

Next, and last for me that day, was Germaine Dulac’s La Folie des Vaillants (France 1926). I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. It was a feminist gypsy drama of sorts (gypsies featured strongly at the Giornate), which emphasised feeling over such trivial matters as acting and plot (a Gorky story). Unfortunately acting and plot are just what audiences look out for to anchor themselves, and the film’s technical limitations distracted from the filmmaker’s symbolic intentions. Also it’s hard these days to take gypsies as the epitome of social freedom in the way that Dulac (and Murnau) did in the 1920s. So it didn’t quite work for me, but it was graced by a quite superb score from the Maud Nelissen trio – the music from the festival that I’d most want to hear again.

And then I slipped away, into the balmy night.

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

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