Pordenone diary – day one

Teatro Verdi

The new Teatro Verdi, Pordenone

The Giornate del Cinema Muto, or Pordenone Silent Film Festival, has been running since 1981, and has long since grown into the world’s premier silent film festival. Its scholarly tone, and multiplicity of languages owing to prints from archives worldwide may not be to everyone’s taste, but but for sheer variety, passion and principle, Pordenone stands alone. After a number of years in exile at nearby Sacile, while its old home, the Teatro Verdi, was being rebuilt, the festival returned to Pordenone in 2007. The Bioscope was there for five days, and reports for each days will now follow.

Pordenone is a relatively small, prosperous town in the Friuli region of north east Italy, an hour’s train journey out of Venice. The prosperity comes in part from Zanussi, the producers of assorted beloved electrical goods, being based nearby. The town seldom features in any tourist guides, but it is an attractive mixture of ancient and modern, replete with cafés and restaurants which for eight days in October heave with silent film fans, academics and film archivists. It is a pleasant place to be, and few complain of having to come back here year after year (and many take a day’s break over the eight days of the festival for that essential visit to Venice).

The new Verdi was naturally the focal point of this year’s festival and of many a cafe conversation. The old warhorse of a building could fit in a great many people and had a certain rough charm, but it was no surprise that the town wanted to revamp the building. And revamp it they have – the result is startling modernistic yet sympathetic to the surrounding buildings, with white stone and glass, eye-catching curves, and inside an ingenious use of space for public areas on four levels, including an exhibition gallery.

Teatro Verdi (interior)

Teatro Verdi, interior

Well, that’s the exterior and the immediate interior, but the auditorium itself got mixed reviews. Grand it may be for the shows and concerts which are the prime reason for the theatre’s existence, but for silent films it has its limitations. There were muttering about inadequate sight lines, and rather ludicrously the projection beam shone just above the first tier of seats, requiring the central portion to be kept clear by ropes, which however did not prevent the occasional shadow of a head appearing on the screen when someone got up. Hardly ideal for the world’s premier silent film event. The poorly-lit steps were another problem – several people fell over in the dark, including most unfortunately the most distinguished American archivist and historian Eileen Bowser, who had a bad fall on the first day and spent the remainder of the festival in hospital.

But enough of the venue, what about the films? Having registered, and equipped myself with festival bag, literature, name badge, catalogue and programme guide, I went straight in to catch most of Dream Street (1921). The programming at Pordenone is in themes, which this year included The Other Weimar, Ladislas Starewitch, René Clair, and Early Cinema, more of which in due course.

Dream Street

Charles Emmett Mack and Carol Dempster in Dream Street (1921), from http://www.silentladies.com

A theme which returns every year is the Griffith Project, which is a chronological survey of all surviving D.W. Griffith films, a gargantuan undertaking now reaching the years 1921-1924. This was the period where Griffith’s star began seriously to wane, and in Dream Street we have him at his very worst. Based on Thomas Burke material, as had been Broken Blossoms, it is set in a never-never London Limehouse, where Carol Dempster is a sadly less-than-adequate replacement for Lillian Gish, albeit playing a rather less down-trodden character. She plays Gypsy Fair (argh), loved by two brothers, unappealingly played by Ralph Graves (bullying but then having a religious conversion) and Ralph Emmett Mack (wimpish but psychotic). The film, in a way, is fascinating for being such a personal project – its sentimentality, high moralism, good-versus-evil symbolic characters, fear of violence, and lead female character representing all that is pure are all typical of Griffith at his most intense – but a combination of unsympathetic characters, heavy reliance on coincidence, general implausbility, and nauseating racism destroy the film. That, and Dempster, whose attempts to mimic the winsomeness and playfulness of Griffith’s Biograph heroines is painful to witness. The racism comes through the ‘evil’ Chinese figure, Sway Wan (Edward Peil), whose capture after an attempted assault on Dempster leads to her regrettable line, “That will teach you to leave white girls alone”, and a truly wretched blackface caricature from Porter Strong.

But more than story, character and theme, Dream Street is technically awful (i.e. from a directing point of view – photographically it is competent enough). Continuity shots are ineptly executed, the pacing is all wrong, nothing connects. The pianist, Gabriel Thibaudeau, got sympathetic applause after the screening for his valiant, if ultimately failed attempt to impose some sort of shape on a film that just did not know where it was going. I can’t believe that I’ve now seen Dream Street twice in my life…

The opening Saturday has just a few films, headed by an opening orchestral spectacular, which this year was Orphans of the Storm, amazingly made by Griffith the same year as Dream Street. But, having a certain aversion to spectacular musical presentation of silents, and wanting a quiet evening in any case, I returned to my hotel to gird myself for the rigours of the days to come. Which you’ll learn all about tomorrow…