Pordenone diary 2008 – day seven

Alexander Shiryaev (1867-1941) is not a name that you will find in any film history. He was a member of the Russian Imperial Ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, a protégé of the great choreographer Marius Petipa, a character dancer of great skill (he was too small for the classic leading roles), and a gifted ballet teacher.

It was his teaching that seems to have led Shiryaev to film. Fascinated with human movement and the notation of ballet, Shiryaev began producing sequential drawings of dance steps that documented the minutiae of such movements, work that was inherently cinematic in construction. Shiryaev must have seen the connection, because in 1904 he applied to the theatre management to let him purchase a motion picture camera and film to record the dancers of the ballet. He was turned down – no films were allowed to be made of the dancers of the Imperial Ballet. Undaunted, Shiryaev purchased a camera anyway – a 17.5mm Biokam acquired in London, to be followed by an Ernemann Kino, also employing 17.5mm film. At some point he also had used of a 35mm camera.

Shiryaev took to filming as one who instinctively knew what the medium could do. He understood the camera as he understood dance. Between 1906 and 1909, Shiryaev produced an astonishing body of work – live records of dances, home movies, comedies, trick films, animations and puppet films. None of these was seen in public. They might have disappeared from history entirely, had they not first been narrowly saved from destruction in the 1960s by a friend of Shiryaev’s, Daniil Saveliev, and then discovered again in 1995 by filmmaker Victor Bocharov, who has been their custodian ever since. Bocharov produced a documentary on the collection in 2003, Zapazdavshaya Premiera (Belated Premiere), but the screenings at Pordenone were the true public premiere for the majority of these films, many of which came fresh from the specialist labs of PresTech in London.

The Shiryaev films were shown over a number of days, the programmes including A Belated Premiere and films related to his world, such as Anna Pavlova dancing. But the main programme came on Friday 10 October, and divided up his ouevre into four categories.

Dance films
These were films of Shiryaev and his dancer wife Natalia Matveeva dancing on a sunlit stage at their Ukraine home. As the only films of the Russian ballet greats at this time, they have plain historical value, but they are also a visual delight. The two dance singly or together in a selection of folk-based dances, performed with sparkling zest, and each ending delightfully with the dancer leaving the stage then returning for a bow. The most dazzling are those on 35mm, particularly Shiryaev’s party piece, ‘Fool’s Dance’ from Petipa’s Mlada.

Trick films
Shiryaev was evidently a film-goer himself, and decided to emulate some of the trick films common in the mid-1900s. All were again filmed at his summer home, in the open air. One film where a giant spider came down and settled on a sleeping man was clearly inspired by Georges Méliès’ Une nuit terrible. Another, given the title [Chairs], anticipated Norman McLaren’s Neighbours by some fifty years, with its stop-animation of humans seated on chairs and swapping positions.

Earlier in the week we had seen numerous fleeting home movies of Shiryaev and family (they are some of the earliest surviving home movies anywhere) and various staged comedies made by the family. The marvellous thing to behold was how the boundaries between home movies, comedies and then trick films blurred, all created in the same spirit of joyous performance. The family’s whole lives seemed to be some form of dance.

Paper films
For me, Shiryaev’s paper ‘films’ were his greatest achievement. Before he had a camera (or so it is assumed), he produced animations on paper (45mm wide) which have now been reconstituted on film. One such film with delicate line showed birds in flight, the observant results of which the festival catalogue rightly pointed out connected his quest for reconstituted movement with that of the chronophotographers Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey. But finest I think was [Cakewalk], a trio of dancers in exquisite, gently swaying unison. Only a minute or so long, but I have never seen a finer piece of animation.

Shiryaev’s puppet animation P’ero-Khudozhniki (Artist Pierrots), from http://www.watershed.co.uk

Puppet films
For David Robinson, the festival’s director and a most enthusiastic advocate of Shiryaev’s work, the stop-frame puppet films he made were his greatest achievement. They were certainly the most astonishing. Years ahead of animation elsewhere in the world (and two or three years ahead of Starewitch), these films used puppet figures in a theatre set to recreate, in meticulous detail, actual ballet dancers. Some of the effects – such a water or paint being thrown, or balls being tossed in the air – were astonishingly accomplished, and simply the co-ordination of several puppets all dancing at the same time would have required prodigious patience and skill. One of the films indeed revealed the animator’s hands to the edge of the frame, moving manically into a mysterious blur.

The puppet films required some concentration on the part of the audience, particularly the 12-minute-long [Harlequin’s Jest], which was in five acts with long titles (supplied by Bocharov) explaining the action. What helped enormously was the music. We know that Shiryaev meant his films to be so accompanied, including the animations, but not what that music was. John Sweeney, one of the festival’s core band of pianists, took on the task of matching music (some from Petipa ballets, some his own) to the films, with Günter Buchwald joining him on violin for [Harlequin’s Jest]. The brilliant results were rightly given loud acclaim by the audience – the musical highlight of the festival.

We will certainly be hearing more about Alexander Shiryaev. The documentary A Belated Premiere gets its British premiere at the Watershed in Bristol on 19 November (nearby Aardman Animation has been involved in supporting the restoration of Shiryaev’s work), and with the restoration of the films as yet incomplete (some we saw only on DVD), it’s a certainty that there will be more on show at Pordenone.

Friday was a day for superlatives. In the morning we had seen more of the Corrick collection of early films collected by a family of entertainers in 1900s Australia. Now, having written my thesis on Charles Urban (right), published a website about him, and taken my blog nom de plume from his company logo, it might be argued that I could be a little biased when it comes to praising his works, but – damn it all – Living London, made by the Charles Urban Trading Company, if it isn’t one of the greatest of all silent films, then it is undoubtedly the greatest film of 1904 [update: the film has now been identified as Urban’s The Streets of London (1906)]. The film is an eleven-minute section from an original forty-minute documentary (no other word will do) depicting London life. Moving approximately eastwards (from Westminster to the City, with a diversion along the Thames), the film shows the metropolis at its imperial zenith, vividly alive, with cameras picking out every detail, high and low (the trouble taken over camera positions was particularly noticeable) – traffic, roadworks, people dancing in the street, workers of every kind, buildings under construction, the river teeming with craft, even in one shot a row of men with sandwich boards advertising Urbanora film shows. The catalogue compared it to Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera or Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, but this was a work of a different kind, a sort of missing link between the single-shot actualities of the early cinema period and the constructed documentary. I can think of few other films that can so thrill with a plain exposition of ‘reality’.

The Corrick collection yielded other gems. Particularly noteworthy were Bashful Mr Brown (1907), a chase comedy made by the Corrick’s themselves; Babylas vient d’hériter diune panthère (1911), pure surrealism from Alfred Machin as an inquisitive leopard is introduced into a bourgeois household; and The Miner’s Daughter (1907), an exercise in beautifully judged pathos from Britain’s James Williamson, in which the title character parts from her father when she marries an artist, and after much grief they are finally brought together by his granddaughter. And it’s a rare early film that combines a mine explosion with scenes inside the Royal Academy.

After the highs of Shiryaev we relaxed in front of Ihr Dunkler Punkt (1929), a typically professional vehicle for Germany’s favourite Briton, Lilian Harvey, who played two identical people, one an ordinary young woman about town, the other a jewel thief, whose lives and lovers get mixed up. A light but cleverly made concoction, in which I most liked the comic turn by the normally sombre Warwick Ward, another Briton who plied his trade in German films.

Michael Nyman takes his bow

I was tiring just a little of films by this stage, and chosen not to follow D.W. Griffith into the sound era with Abraham Lincoln (1930). Instead I concluded my Pordenone with the evening screenings of A Propos de Nice (1930) and Kino Pravda no. 21 (1925). A large crowd of Pordenone locals queued up for this, and the theatre was filled up to its third tier. How come? Because Michael Nyman was playing the piano, and Italians, it seems, love his music. Nyman had been due to play at the festival last year, but had to withdraw owing to illness, so did the honourable thing by turning up this year. Despite his star status, Nyman found himself in the pit the same as all the other musicians during the festival, with the result that no one saw him until he emerged for his bow at the end. A Propos de Nice came first, and Nyman’s complexly repetitive music provided the ideal match for Vigo’s cumulative montage of telling images. It was certainly quite different to anything else we heard during the week, a lesson in how we should always be encouraging different musical interpretations of silent films. Particularly striking were sequences with a single bass note pounded with a rapidity that seemed to be testing the piano’s stamina to the limit.

The Kino Pravda, a celebrated example of the series, on the death of Lenin, was less successful. The film itself, with its hectoring, fractured style, combining newsfilm with slogans and animation, probably defies most forms of musical accompaniment, and Nyman’s score churned out circular themes that didn’t much connect with the film. The score lacked the inspiration of A Propos de Nice, and the film ended a few bars before he did, so that he was being applauded while still trying to finish playing. Opinion afterwards was mixed, with some of the musicologists among the Giornate regulars in shock.

And that was it for me. I left early on the Saturday, the last day of the festival, and so missed Griffith’s final film The Struggle (1931) (touchingly paired with a re-showing of his first, The Adventures of Dollie) and the grand finale of Jacques Feyder’s Les Nouveaux Messieurs (1929). This was a fine festival. Few outstanding classics, but so much to interest, stimulate, challenge and excite the imagination. There were welcome innovations, such as the electronic subtitles, and encouraging signs of closer relations between town and festival. The Giornate del Cinema Muto never rests on its laurels, recognising the broad and knowledgable audience that it attracts, and that in a real way Pordenone is silent film today. It sets the agenda; it builds up the canon; it consistently reminds us of how various the silent film was (and continues to be – there were some examples of modern silent shorts, though none that I saw were terribly distinguished). Warm thanks to all who make the festival such a success year after year. We’re so lucky that it’s there.

‘Til next year.

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

6 responses

  1. Thanks so much for the detailed report. I sure wish I could have been there. Now you should come to Cinecon!

  2. Pingback: Pordenone diary 2008 - day five « The Bioscope

  3. I can only sympathise – as usual, I was tiring at this stage, too, not helped by a sore throat (too much talking in the cool Italian night air, probably) had turned into a minor chest infection. I can only apologise to anyone I disturbed at the final event….however;
    Friday started with Cikani (Gypsies) a Czech adaptation of a classic novel of deception and intrigue across generations. By all accounts, in the novel the story is told from three viewpoints, witnesses that may or may not be reliable; unfortunately, the structure of the film, which needed to be simplified from this, wasn’t, so we were thrown headlong into a confused mass of flashbacks within flashbacks, and characters appearing and disappearing with twenty years in between, let alone locations switching from Venice to mountain hideaways……for quite a while I was under the impression I was watching a portmanteau film on a theme, until I recognised the doomed-in-love Venetian gondolier was the gypsy wandering the mountain twenty years later. The location footage of Venice was beautifully shot, but perhaps a lie-in may have been a better idea.
    Oh the Corricks….just sublime. Our Australian friends may be just showing off their best films and leaving the tat behind, but what else have they got ??? As well as the films you mentioned, a superb early stencil-coloured William Tell, a neat office comedy called Bettina’s Substitute, where a very pretty secretary, fed up of fending off her lecherous boss, sends in her boyfriend in drag to cover a day’s sickness…..
    Having missed the other WW1 actuality/documentaries, I made a point of seeing the last one – footage of the destruction wrought in Northern Italy/Southern Austria Alpine regions….a front we hear nothing about in the UK, as we weren’t involved…and yet, after our stays in Pordenone and Sacile over the years, seeming now horribly local, the architecture of the ruined buildings, the shop signs, horribly familiar.
    Again, I’ll just echo your comments on the Shiryaev programmes – I’m no balletomane, but I am an animation fan; the quality of the man’s work was just astonishing, and I’ll definitely be going to see them again in Bristol.
    I tried with Abe Lincoln, I really did, but after half an hour of what seemed a fairly typically very early sound film – stilted and langourous, auditory, not visual, I went for some fresh air and sunshine. According to those who stayed, it was well written; but more akin to a very decent radio play.
    Day Eight;
    Saturday started both bright and early with the remainder of the silent WC Fields films; the short from 1915, Pool Sharks, from a Rohauer print I had seen before somewhere, which is fair enough and functional without once hinting at greatness….which came with So’s Your Old Man; alongside Battle of the Sexes as my favourite film of the week; WC is the socially inept, occasionally drunk small-town inventor, with long-suffering wife, and daughter courting the scion of the town’s social leader, one of The Warrens of Virginia…without going into the plot – and unlike The Old Army Game, this had a proper plot, with only one sequence, the golf sketch that would become the sound short The Golf Specialist, obviously pre-written and inserted – this was the film that made me a WC convert, having been lukewarm to his talents for many years. The direction from Gregory La Cava was spot on, the support players, headed by Alice Joyce as the princess – yes, really – pitch perfect, and large chunks of inspired surreality. We’re hoping to try and get this shown in Bristol at some stage; I’ll let you know if this comes to pass. Suffice to say the weary, occasionally seen-it-all audience at the Verdi were roaring with laughter.
    Then came Janice Meredith, doubly linked to the festival threads as a product of the Eastern US industry, Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Productions, and featuring Fields in a brief (and frankly, lacklustre) cameo. Very much along the lines of Little Old New York, this was one of Hearst’s costume drama vehicles for Marion Davies, again cast opposite Harrison Ford. To be honest, it was even less interesting. Marion was given far less to do, her undoubted comic talents stifled by the scenario, the costuming, and the direction; it wasn’t much more than a series of historical tableaux, as Janice finds herself involved sequentially in all the War of Independence hotspots. The Crossing of the Delaware was an impressively mounted sequence, but the choice of camera angles and shots reduced the impact of what could have been a redeeming part of the film; it was entirely shot at long and medium range; there were no shots of telling detail, of individual endurance, suffering or effort….all a bit limp.
    After a welcome long lunch, we returned with, as you reported, the first and last Griffiths. The Adventures of Dollie is well enough known, I think….but sat next to a distinguished editor, I looked at the editing; unless I missed a very slick substitution, that kid really was in the barrel for that extended final shot of the barrel being fished out of the river….The Struggle really divided the audience. Some thought it an awful throwback with unrealistic acting; some found it very powerful. I tended towards the latter; I found it interesting that the film, with all Griffith’s moralistic reputation, was utterly free from suggestions that the central figure, the alcoholic family man, had only himself to blame. From the start, the blame is pointed at Prohibition, turning the sort of character, like our man, who had a sociable pint on the way home from a working day, into someone having to resort to bootleg spirits in illegal dives. Nor having realised he has a drink problem, is he condemned for failing to keep off it (apart from out of his own mouth). He is quite clearly shown to be completely helpless in the face of his addiction illness….not that his alcoholism is spoken of in those terms – but that modern attitude to it is there. Despite a powerful central performance, and also from that of the actress playing his young daughter who rescues him from his lowest point, the film does tend to veer from compelling and harrowing drama to Public Information Film and back again; I can understand why it was a flop on release, but by all accounts it was laughed out of screenings. That I don’t understand; there was nothing much to laugh at, apart from, perhaps, a laughter of personal discomfort at a film that may have been too near the knuckle for acceptance at that time….despite a cop-out ending.

    Laugh we did, though, along with The Green Goddess; another product of the New York industry of the early twenties; this was a property, a fine piece of adventure hokum, that had been toured for years by the films’ star, George Arliss. His production company, and his film. It’s a tale of Empire, of the northern frontier of India, set in a fictional Himalayan kingdom; tensions – the ruler’s(Arliss) brothers have been condemned elsewhere for treason against Britain; Alice Joyce and two soldiers, a ready-made love-triangle, attempting to evacuate her children from a brewing war, instead end up in his clutches…from the outset, Arliss is winking at us. In his remote kingdom, we first see him studying La Vie Parisienne, discussing with his valet the latest London fashions in headware; the film continues in this way, with B-picture thrills leavened with knowing lines….”The next time you see me, I shall be a priest” intones Arliss via title; it cuts back to him, grinning, in his robes and monocle, “Ridiculous, isn’t it”. When, after the usual adventure and self-sacrifice, with the RAF performing a Seventh Cavalry role, the ruler loses the girl back to The Empire……defeated, Arliss replaces his monocle, and declares “Perhaps it’s as well, she probably would have been a damned nuisance anyway” and slopes back into his palace. All of a sudden, Arliss’ popularity made a great deal of sense; in this film at least he was creating what we would think of as a Bond Villain, an evil man with great one-liners and a tongue bedded firmly in one cheek, an up-market Tod Slaughter. Great, great fun.
    Last lap now…Les Nouvelles Messieurs….interesting film. I think it’s a satirical political allegory; a young, ambitious but mediocre ballerina ricocheting between two lovers; an equally ambitious theatre electrician and union activist, and an aristocratic elderly Sugar Daddy, a Government Minister. Through his union activity the younger man defeats the elder in a snap election, and when the socialist government collapses, loses to him again. The ballerina, with little compunction, goes with the main chance, although she does seem to have genuine affection for both….and they for her. I assume she is representing France….
    The camerawork was as sumptuous as you would expect from Georges Perinal, assisted by Marcel Carne….there wasn’t a dull composition, a bland angle, a so-so camera move, in the entire film; it looked gorgeous throughout. A very clever film….BUT……you admired it, you couldn’t fall in love with it. The actors looked fantastic, but you couldn’t fall in love with their characters, possibly because they were symbols rather than real people. As a stylistic exercise, a terrific film, but there was a void somewhere in its heart that left me cold emotionally, despite the best efforts of Antonio Coppolla’s fine chamber-orchestra score.
    I couldn’t really care what happened. But then, perhaps, tiredness and illness had finally kicked in; I tried to watch the final film, another Marion Davies vehicle, advertised as a flapper comedy, where the flapper’s (Davies) father takes parental advice from The Taming of The Shrew. I abandoned it after a mirth-free half hour. According to those who stuck with it (until about 1.15 am), it did not improve much. Poor Marion, she had so much comedic talent, as shown in her Hollywood features such as Show People and the Patsy….but generally she was ill-served by her material. Be careful who you fall in love with, I suppose….
    I had a great time, as always; brilliantly run with only very minor glitches; I think your assessment that it was of a consistently high standard, but with few startling instant classics is spot on; but as always, so much that was interesting, and new (to me at least), that I have started saving already for next year…… anyone who is intersted in film, silent or otherwise, should make the pilgrimage; it’s opened up a whole new world for me these last five or six years.

  4. Gasp. Many thanks for going beyond the call of any duty to fill in the gaps in Day Seven and to report fully on Day Eight, which I missed. I’m rather regreting that I did – So’s Your Old Man and The Green Goddess sound like great fun (I’ve a sneaking admiration for George Arliss, largely stemming from his self-mocking turn as the title character in Dr Syn), and as a connoisseur of films with Shakespearean associations I should have caught up with Enchantment, the Marion Davies vehicle.

    Now back to reality.

  5. Well, the original idea was to post a pseudo-blog, a daily diary, on Nitrateville when I returned – but as what we saw respectively seemed to dovetail quite nicely…..not too long winded, dumb or boring I hope.
    Back to reality indeed….until Bologna, anyway…

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