You could always go to the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, not see any films at all, and still have a marvellous and rewarding time. Some, it would appear, do just that. The weather is gorgeous, the restaurants inviting, every street is strewn with the chairs of pavement cafés, and much negotiating over the higher and lower politics of film archives goes on. It is the place where alliances are made, projects are hatched, and deals are done.
The Bioscope, however, rose with the lark (should they have such in Italy) on day two and headed for the Verdi. At Pordenone, screenings start at 9.00am in the main cinema and run til around 1.00pm, then resume 2.30pm, stop again around 6.00pm, then after supper it’s back for the final long haul from 8.30pm to midnight or so. There’s a second, smaller theatre, used for repeat showings and video screenings, the Ridotto. Had you seen everything at the Verdi on the Sunday, you would have seen seventeen titles. Many come with intertitles other than English, so earphone translation is provided. I have a stubborn belief that if a film is well-made enough, not knowing the language of the titles is not a problem – the pictures alone will suffice. This doesn’t entirely work, but I shunned the headphones, and just about got by.
First up was a selection of American shorts on social interest themes from the forthcoming Treasures from the American Film Archives III DVD. Regrettably, I missed The Black Hand (1906), the first Mafia-themed film and The Cost of Carelessness (1913), an educational film with a scene of children watching an educational film (OK, not everyone’s idea of a thrill, but I’d have been intrigued to see it). So, we kicked off with The Hazards of Helen: Episode 13 – The Escape on the Fast Frieght (1915). Not an obvious choice for a selection of films on social themes, but it was argued that Helen’s (Helen Holmes) position as a railroad telegraph operator assumed by her co-workers to be too feeble to do anything made an interesting social comment on the many women office workers of the time. Because, of course, Helen heroically fought villains across the top of the carriages of a speeding train, before returning to her job where no one was any the wiser about her. It’s not always realised that many of the early serials were not cliff-hangers, but rounded off the story neatly at the end of each episode, before resuming much the same narrative with the succeeding episode. Bud’s Recruit (1918) was a two-reel recruiting drama, where a group of neighbourhood kids form themselves into a ramshackle troop, led by all-American Bud, but it is his effete, bespectacled elder brother who by accident ends up joining the army – and of course discovering that it has made him into a true man. So a bit resistible in theme, but well-made – the director was King Vidor. Lastly in this set there was Labor’s Reward (1925), the one surviving reel of five from a dramatised history of unionism produced by the American Federation of Labor. It put particular emphasis on the exploitation of women workers, and begged audiences to buy only from shops which advertised union-made products. Quite fascinating, and a highly-polished production too.
The Cameraman’s Revenge, from Wikipedia
Pause for breath, then down go the lights for the first of the Ladislaw Starewitch strand. The reason for this seemes to have been a fine touring exhibition of artefacts and photographs of Starewitch’s work which was on display, but the films themselves were a mish-mash of old restorations. We saw Mest’ Kinematograficheskogo Operatora (The Cameraman’s Revenge) (1911), Prekrasaia Lukanida (The Beautiful Lucanid) (1910) and Rozhdestvo Obitatelei (The Insects’ Christmas) (1911), all products of Starewitch’s mindboggling idea to make stop-frame animation films using models of grasshoppers, stag beetles and such like. The Insects’ Christmas was a special delight, Santa Claus climbing down off a Christmas Tree to wake some insects out of hibernation and to treat them to their own festivities.
Pordenone Film Fair
I missed the German film Rivalen (1923) as I had to go to my own crucial pavement café negotiation (the fruits of which you’ll have to wait until January 2009 to see), then to the Pordenone book fair, a fascinating mix of sturdy academic volumes on improbable themes in a multiplicity of languages, and posters, photographs and tattered memorablia for the cinema of the childhood of many of the older festival goers – but such is Pordenone.
The afternoon kicked off with Entr’acte (1924), first off in the René Clair retrospective, with musical accompaniment of Erik Satie’s score by two pianists, Barbara Rizzi and Antonio Nimis. What more is there to say about one of the great jeu d’esprit of avant garde cinema, originally a filmed interlude shown between the two acts of the Dadaist Francis Picabia’s notorious ballet Relâche? The central action is a funeral procession, with the mourners initially lollopping along behind in mock-serious manner, before having to speed up to a manic rush as the hearse (pulled by a camel, naturally) gets faster and faster. A promo-reel for the festival was projected on the outside of the Verdi at night, which included this magical sequence, like so:
Teatro Verdi at night, showing promotional video with scene from L’Entr’acte
Another strand was The Other Weimar. This initially puzzling title introduced the German cinema of the 1920s that we seldom see. Thanks to the studies of Kracauer and Eisner, much of the studies of German cinema at this time has focussed on Expressionism and the fevered productions whose themes seemed to anticipate the nightmares of Nazism. This strand showed the work of the directors who did not get round to making Caligari or Metropolis – those who tended to make the films that people actually went to see.
Wege Zu Kraft und Schönheit (The Way to Strength and Beauty) (1924-25) was a surprise inclusion, being a health, dance and sports documentary, albeit a popular one at the time – probably on account of its liberal displays of nudity. It was an example of the Ufa studio’s documentaries, or Kulturfilme, and most entertainingly had the festival-goers squirming in their seats as its theme of the need for us to get up off our backsides and start walking seemed all too relevant. Though it was a bit long and repetitive, it was made with mocking wit and some style, with plenty to fascinate fans of dance (including Mary Wigman and Tamara Karsavina) and sport (Babe Ruth, Helen Wills, Charley Paddock). And the keen-eyed would have spotted Leni Riefenstahl in her first film, no doubt picking up ideas for Olympia twelve years away, as a maid in a Roman bath sequence.
I cannot now remember what crucial meeting it can have been that led me to miss Fatty Arbuckle in The Cook (1918) and Max Davidson in the immortal Pass the Gravy (1928), but I hope it was really important.
In the evening, Jean Vigo’s A Propos de Nice (1930). We had been promised Michael Nyman playing his own piano score, but he was unwell, and was replaced by one of the Pordenone regulars, John Sweeney – who was magnificent. The films at Pordenone are accompanied by a small team of pianists, generally hidden from view beneath the stage, with a monitor showing them the action and headphones translating the titles. This year we had Neil Brand, Gabriel Thibaudeau, Günther Buchwald, John Sweeney, Stephen Horne, Donald Sosin, Phil Carli and Antonio Coppola. High praise to them all. A Propos de Nice is surprisingly amateurish in places (they didn’t know much about focus), but its cumulative vision of the human madness on display in Nice confirmed its greatness.
To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian Film Archive, the evening’s feature film was Csak Egy Kislány Van a Világon (Only One Girl in the World) (1930), the first Hungarian sound film, though most of it was silent with sonorised score. This was the tale of two war veterans who love the same woman. She falls for the livelier, he falls for another woman when he travels to the city, his friend brings them together again, culminating in a sentimental rendition of the title song. It was a simple yet curiously appealing piece with the quality of a folk tale and a structure in movements that seemed to cry out for its expression as a nineteenth-century symphony. The heroine was played by the 18-year-old Márta Eggerth, now aged ninety-five, who remakably was not able to be at the screening because she is still working (as a teacher of singing). But David Robinson, the festival director, called her on the phone afterwards, and we were treated to the extraordinary experience of listening to this lively woman who sounded as spirited and lively as she had been in 1930, while she experienced the oddness of having her telephone conversation warmly applauded by an invisible audience.
And so to bed.