Pordenone diary 2008 – day two

Outside the Teatro Comunale Giuseppe Verdi

Before launching into what we saw on Sunday 5 October at the Giornate del Cinema Muto, a word of praise for one particular innovation. Pordenone shows prints from around the world, which arrive in a multiplicity of languages featured on the intertitles. For years we have benefitted from the skills of translators viewing the prints as we did and providing instant translations through headphones. This year the headphones were gone. In their place we had computer-generated subtitles immediately below the screen. If the film was in English, the subtitles appeared in Italian, and vice versa; if it was in any other language, we got subtitles in both Italian and English. The amount of preparatory work must have been prodigious, but the result was a hugely improved viewing experience. Warm thanks are due to all those who made this possible, and everyone’s hearts went out to whoever had translated all of the 160 minutes of the Norwegian film Laila in English, only to discover that the print came with English titles…

This innovation went hand-in-hand with a welcome emphasis on bilingual presentation generally. In Giornates past it has felt as though English speakers were taking over, which must have been greatly trying for the Italians in the audience. Now most (if not all) spoken introductions were translated from one language or the other. One or two speakers need to know when to take a break to give the poor translator a chance to recap, while one speaker was perhaps unnerved by the translator and stopped speaking in mid-sentence, leaving the translator with an impossible task. But we’re getting there.

The day started for me (earlier risers had caught the French film Triplepatte) with two mindboggling Baby Peggy shorts, Such is Life (1924) and Carmen Junior (1923). Child star Baby Peggy (played by Diana Serra Carey, ninety years old next month) is beyond rational criticism. These bizarre films give every appearance of having been made up as they went along. A surreal sequence in Such is Life where an unexplained living snowman melted through a street grill was memorable, but had no logical connection with anything around it (the story was based on ‘The Little Match Girl’, though feisty Peggy wasn’t about to do pathos).

Ever since 1997 the Giornate has been working its way chronologically through the works of D.W. Griffith. This year we reached the end of the journey. The films of Griffith’s last working years are generally dismissed as the embarrassing efforts of an out-of-date man in his creative dotage – at least, those such as me who hadn’t actually seen them believed this. I wasn’t alone in such assumptions, and the astonished (well, pleasantly surprised) rediscovery of Griffith’s late films was one of the major points of the festival. We started with Sally of the Sawdust (1925). This is a comedy-drama of a circus performer (Carol Dempster), whose mother was thrown out by her parents when she married a man from the circus and who has fallen under the care of entertainer Eustace McGargle (W.C. Fields). What surprised about Sally of the Sawdust was its general competence. That sounds like a dreadful thing to say about the man who established the art of directing films, but by this period in his career one had sensed that he was wilfully opposed to the ways in which studio-dominated cinema was evolving. But for the most part Sawdust is pleasingly competent. It ticks along nicely. Fields is outstanding – in complete command of the screen from his very first shot. We even get to see him juggle. Dempster is, inevitably, annoying and she puts on all her girlish mannerisms (it’s an oddity of the film that she seems far too old for such faux-teenage mannersims, though she was only twenty-three when the film was made). Yet even she surprised in a house party scene where is dresses up glamorously and gives a hint of a quite different, and alluring presence, which she might more profitably have returned to. There was also a touching scene where she dances in the way her mother used to for the woman she does not realise is her grandmother. Unfortunately, Griffith’s control fails him towards the end of the film, with his taste for old glories taking over as we have two prolonged chases, one with Dempster, one with Fields, which are poorly executed and fail to intertwine as they should have done, ending with a casual resolution of the plot that lets the audience down. But there were signs of promise, and better was to come.

Included in the catch-all ‘Rediscoveries’ strand were four Max Linder films. Of these Max Toréador (1913) was remarkable for its prolonged scenes filmed in a bullring in Barcelona with Max himself in the middle with the other toreadors genuinely taking part in the bullfighting. It was no surprise to learn that different prints exist with scenes cut according to local sensibilities – the film did not shy from showing the ‘sport’ in all its bloody cruelty. Rather more enjoyable was The Three-Must-Get-Theres (1922), a goofy parody of Douglas Fairbanks in The Three Musketeers. The try-a-bit-of-everything humour was variable, but the film gleefully sent up the Fairbanks self-satisfaction and panache, laced with a string of anachronistic gags (motorbikes instead of horses, that sort of thing). Max remains one of the geniuses of the silent cinema, a poetic blending of opposites – graceful air with a penchant for pratfalls; debonair confidence with always just a touch of panic in his eyes.

One of the festivals themes was filmmaking in New York, tied in with Richard Koszarski’s new book, Hollywood on Hudson. The films chosen were an odd mish-mash, none odder nor mish-mashier than His Nibs (1920-21), directed by Gregory La Cava. Starring obscure comedian Chic Sale (whose gentle comic style suggests he might be worth investigating further, if more films exist), the film was made out of what was going to be a conventional drama, The Smart Aleck. At some point someone realised that the film wasn’t working, and decided to build another film around it. So we get a film about a cinema show, with Sale playing multiple parts, including a crusty projectionist. The audience settles down to watch the film-within-a-film, now called He Fooled ‘Em All (starring Sale and Colleen Moore), with commentary from the projectionist in the intertitles to prevent the audience from reading out the titles. The projectionist also tells us that he cut out a train journey from the film, because those scenes all look the same, plus some mushy stuff at the end. So some good laughs at the expense of cinema, and an intriguing portrait of a small town film show, but a minor oddity overall.

The highlight of the day – indeed one of the highlights of the week – was quite unexpected. On 28 December 1908 the Messina Straits off Sicily was at the epicentre of a huge earthquake. It was probably the biggest earthquake in Europe ever experienced; around 200,000 died in the region, with Messina itself having its population reduced to just a few hundred. We saw how film responded to this tragedy, through three actualities and two fiction films. The first actuality, from an unknown producer, had the greatest effect – aided by Stephen Horne’s eerie music (starting with solo flute before turning to piano). Each shot framed people within the ruins of the city to haunting effect. There was a profound sense of a shock, a dawning realisation of what had just happened. A Pathé news report showed us more, while a Cines film showed us the town being rebuilt in 1910. An Ambrosio drama, L’Orfanella di Messina (1909) depicted a couple who had lost their daughter to illness adopting an orphan girl from Messina, simple yet deeply touching. Finally, and oddly, there was a Coco comedy in which the comedian imagined himself caught up in the earthquake, with collapsing walls and floors in his bedroom. In this simple package of films, we saw how film was used to report on and to help people come to terms with what the country had been through. The sequence moved us all.

The Orchestra della Scuola Media Centro Storico di Pordenone, a school orchestra, was given the chance to show its mettle, accompanying Buster Keaton’s One Week (whose inventiveness greatness put the middling efforts of other comedies seen during the day into context) and three cartoons. Heavy on the recorders and percussion, but good accompaniment for all that, with spot-on sound effects. And further evidence of the growing bonds between community and festival.

The Golf Specialist, from criterioncollection.blogspot.com

The evening’s screening kicked off with a sound film: W.C. Fields in The Golf Specialist (1930). The Fields theme was a bit of an opportunisitc one, probably chosen because some of his silents turned up in the Griffith and New York strands. The film is a classic, of course, and it was good to have it as a point to which his silent films were pointing. It’s a variety sketch in which Fields chaotically fails to demonstrate his golf skills, which tangling with children, animals and sticky paper with progressive absurdity. Delicious cynicism is on view, though there could be more of Fields’ sardonic view of the world and a little less of the golfing calamities.

After a modern Romanian silent short on climate change, whose logic eluded me, we had The Show Off (1926), directed by Mal St Clair. Part of the New York strand (it was filmed at Paramount’s Astoria studios), it starred the ever unappealing Ford Sterling (the Keystone star that Chaplin famously supplanted) in a relatively straight role. This had some cultural-historical fascination in its picture of office life and suburban aspiration, with Sterling playing all too accurately a vain and selfish social failure. Somehow he becomes aware of the unhappiness of other people about him and implausibly saves the day. Had Fields been given the part, we might have had a film of note. As it was we had a minor work of academic interest, its most diverting feature being Louise Brooks as the girlfriend of Sterling’s brother-in-law, looking for all the world as though she had glided in from a different planet.

Look out for Day Three, where we will encounter hands, feet, Satan, puppets and a strongman on his holidays.

Pordenone diary 2008 – day one
Pordenone diary 2008 – day three
Pordenone diary 2008 – day four
Pordenone diary 2008 – day five
Pordenone diary 2008 – day six
Pordenone diary 2008 – day seven