Bird’s-eye view of the stalls in the Verdi, main venue of the Giornate del Cinema Muto
Pordenone is the home of silent film. Every year, for eight days in October, an audience of film fans, nostalgists, historians, academics and archivists gather in a small Italian town an hour’s train journey north east of Venice to watch the films of ninety or more years ago. The reason that they do so, and the reason why the Giornate del Cinema Muto is such a success, is the breadth of the programme and the breadth of that audience. Here you will see every kind of silent film – some good, some bad, but never one without interest – amid an audience that knows and loves what it is watching. Scholarship and sentiment go hand in hand at Pordenone.
The location helps too. The Giornate was established at Pordenone because of the efforts of a dedicated band of able enthusiasts from the nearly Cineteca del Friuli, but the pavement cafes and restaurants of this prosperous but unassuming town have played their part, still more the warm and gentle sunshine that generally greets us at this time of year. While the grey clouds of autumn gather elsewhere, and the word tumbles into financial meltdown, where better to take time out from such cares? But were it to offer only escapism, the Giornate would never have lasted twenty-seven years. Here masterpieces are acclaimed, restorations are unveiled, scholarly endeavours are hatched or reported on, deals are done, alliances made, special events are hosted, and everyone leaves with the sense of having played their part in the process of investigation and rediscovery which keeps the world of silent film so very much alive.
Promotion for the festival amid the paving stones of Pordenone
This year, the Giornate enjoyed its second year back at its Pordenone base, after a long sojourn in nearby Sacile while the Verdi theatre was being reconstructed. Last year, though it was good to be back home, there was a sense of things not yet quite in place, of Pordenone itself not being quite ready for us. There was a noticeable difference this year. From the civic welcomes on the opening night, to the promotional ’tiles’ dotted among the paving stones throughout the centre of the town, there was a palpable sense of warm welcome. Every other shop had a poster for the festival in its window, and in the Verdi itself one sensed a greater understanding of what this festival was all about. One hopes that the Giornate is good for Pordenone – it is heavily dependent on local funding, after all – and in general there was a sense that all want to build still further on its success. Continual development of its mission has been a cornerstone of the Giornate’s success.
So, what was on offer in 2008? It was a typically mixed programme, broken up into themes, with a number deriving from newly-published books. The themes included filmmaking in New York, French comedy, Mary Pickford, W.K.L. Dickson, early cinema, Italian silents, First World War actualities, D.W. Griffith, W.C. Fields, and the private films of ballet dancer Alexander Shiryaev. It was a festival with just a few outstanding individual titles – a Norwegian epic, a travelogue of London from 1904, a John Gilbert swashbuckler, news reports of an earthquake, hand-drawn and puppet animation films from Russia – but so much of continual interest that there was never a time to break away and go for the traditional day’s trip to Venice. There was always something that you had to see, though with two screens and numerous associated events it was not possible to catch everything. I estimate that, if one includes short films included in compilations, that there were at least 312 films on view, and over seven of the eight days I saw 211 of them. This diary will report as much as I can. I thought of arranging it thematically, but a day-by-day account is probably best (certainly easiest).
Sparrows, from http://www.siffblog.com
And so I arrived on Saturday 4 October, landing at Treviso, and arriving mid-afternoon in time to register, picking up my sturdy Pordenone bag, 216-page catalogue (meticulously edited by Cathy Surowiec), handy daily schedule guide, and a mountain of weighty books given to festival ‘donors’. With all this administration, the first few films in the afternoon were missed, and I kicked off my Giornate with the gala evening screening of Sparrows. Following the civic welcomes and effervescent address from festival director David Robinson, we had an unusual start with Katie Melua’s pop video, Mary Pickford (previously discussed on the Bioscope). It’s a work which looks all the more adroitly constructed when seen on the big screen, albeit from a DVD copy, through the rhymes are no less excruciating (“Douglas Fairbanks, he wore a moustache / Must have had much cash / too”). Then a magical paper film animation of birds in flight c.1905 from Shirayev, followed by an exuberant dance from the man himself – but there’ll be much more on the discovery of the festival in the report on Day Seven.
Sparrows (1926) is one of the classics, but I’d not seen it before. It was a new restoration from the Library of Congress, presented with live accompaniment by the Orchestra Sinfonica del Friuli Venezia Giuli, conducted by Hugh Munro Neely, with a score by Jeffrey Silverman. It was a fine piece of music, well attuned to the ebbs and flows of the film, and immaculately played. But the film itself was a disappointment. The general verdict in the histories is that this was Pickford’s last great film; according to some judges, her finest work. The festival catalogue had no hesitation is calling it her masterpiece, and shook its head sorrowfully at some of the contemporary critical comments it received, such as Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times, who said there was “an abundance of exaggerated suspense and a number of puerile ideas”. Well, I’m with Mordaunt. The premise itself is promising, indeed daring. ‘Baby farms’, where orphan and abandoned children were raised for sale to adoptive parents were apparently a 1920s racket, so the film was plucking its story from the headlines. The setting chosen is gothic-horrific – a sinister, otherwordly Southern swamp, in the middle of which Pickford (aged thirty-three, playing seventeen) protects a gaggle of cute ragamuffins from the evil machinations of the evil Grimes (Gustav von Seyfferitz, with limp, because limping is what evil people tend to do), his evil son, evil dog, and browbeaten but undoubtedly just as evil wife. Make no mistake about it, we’re steeped in evil here.
The film throws us in media res, with no explanation of why the children are incarcerated, and no reason given for the cruelty on display. This fundamental lack of root ideas haunts Winifred Dunn’s scenario, whose general weakness impairs the whole film. Heavy reliance on cute (including the alarmingly pudgy Mary Louise Miller as abducted baby Doris, whose middle-class parents bring about the rescue of all the children), cartoon nastiness and the artificial thrills of the chase through the swamp all starve the film of reason. It’s a desperate film that has to introduce marauding alligators. Of course there are felicities. The cinematography – Karl Struss and Charles Rosher (with Hal Mohr), gearing themselves up for Sunrise – captures the eerie tone required, and Harry Oliver’s swampy sets are memorable, though model work lets down the illusion from time to time. As for Pickford, it’s a matter of taste. The festival catalogue called her performance “a virtual primer in the art of silent screen acting”. To these jaded eyes, it was caricature, one film too far in trying to preserve the idea of ‘Little Mary’.
Better was to follow on the Sunday. Which you’ll learn all about in the report on Day Two.