Pordenone diary 2008 – day five

Day five, and we’re going strong. After a couple of days at Pordenone, the sheer stamina required to take in films from 9.00am to midnight starts to tell, and you wonder if you are going to make it. Then you pass a threshold of some kind, and you suddenly feel like you could do this silent film watching lark forever.

Of course, not all stay for all eight days, and this was the first time in several years (I’ve been going since 1995, with one year missed) where I’d been there for more than five days. So it was with a sense almost of wandering into unknown territory that I settled down at 9.00 for the first film of the day, The Drums of Love (1928).

Is there a worse-named film? At any rate, is there a worse-named film in works of D.W. Griffith? The drums in this tale set in nineteenth-century South America were noticeable by their absence. As far as film history goes, this was the first of four features made by Griffith for Joseph Schenck, whose collective failure spelled the end of his filmmaking career. Its reputation has always been low, and it has remained one of the least-seen of Griffith’s feature films, not helped by the fact that all that apparently survives is the 16mm copy held by the Library of Congress [correction – 35mm material exists – see comments]. I missed it on the Tuesday, but for some reason the festival gave it a second screening, and I’m glad that they did.

The Drums of Love is based on the story of Paolo and Francesca, as told by Dante. This much-told tale, often under the title ‘Francesca di Rimini’, was a popular subject in the early cinema period, and though Griffith did not film it in his Biograph period, it is just the sort of subject that he might have chosen. Transferring this tale of doomed lovers in Renaissance Italy to the South America of the early 1800s was a bold choice, but for me the setting seemed well realised. The lovers were played by Don Alvardo and Mary Philbin, and their relative weakness as performers, their lack of star quality, hampered a film which depended a lot on chemistry and much lingering looks between the two. What did not help their cause, however, was having to act opposite Lionel Barrymore, in what must be his finest screen performance. Barrymore plays Alvardo’s dictator brother, a hunchbacked, powerful presence (the titles called him a ‘super-dwarf’, which didn’t make much sense), alert to everything, deeply aware of his own ugliness, yet determined to get whatever he wants by whatever means necessary. He was vulnerable and ruthless at the same time.

Essentially, Barrymore seeks to marry Philbin for reasons of expediency, but send his brother to fetch her. They fall in love, it ends tragically. Exactly how it was to end was evidently unclear to Griffith, as he shot two endings, one where the two lovers die – the original ending – the other where Barrymore is killed, apparently introduced after the film was not a success on opening, which is far less satisfactory. At any rate, I rather liked The Drums of Love. The murky 16mm copy did not help matters, and were a sharp 35mm print ever to emerge, I suspect the film would look terrific. As it was, it was an artfully composed work, filled with rich, incidental details (I noted in particular a procession of slaves in one countryside scene, passing by in the foreground, a passing visual reference to cruelties that supported the lifestyles of the chief protagonists). Also impressive was the intensity of the drama, without that much plot to go on, and the sheer darkness of the theme. Above all it is Barrymore’s towering performance as a South American Richard III, though pitiable in a way that Shakespeare’s villain never is, that makes this an interesting film that, in other circumstances, might have been a great one.

With the wisdom of years spent watching some terrible British silent films that will never see the light of day again, I chose to avoid The Last King of Wales (1922), a short directed by the talent-free George Ridgwell which only survives on 9.5mm. Those unwitting souls who ventured in mostly voted it the worst film of the festival. Instead I crossed over to the Riddoto to be much impressed with an Austrian First World War actuality, Ein Heldenkampf in Schnee und Eis (1917). This depicted the Alpine war between Austrian and Italian troops, seen from the viewpoint of the former as they attacked a mountain-top emplacement. Given the German titles, and my lack of German, I missed the finer points, but the film was clearly well-staged – with an emphasis on staged, since there was a strong element of dramatic construction about the whole work, though I could not really tell which to accept as reality, which as not. The surrender of a clutch of Italian troops was presumably reality.

Back then to the Verdi for a selection of films related to the D.W. Griffith classic, The Lonely Villa (1909). Now some care deeply for the cross-cutting innovations of this pioneering suspense film, and relish finding stylistic antecedents in earlier films. We saw first the Griffith film, then a renowned Pathé film, Le Médecin du Château (1908), which anticipates much of the later film’s formal novelties, including the use of a telephone to bring together characters separated by distance; plus the still earlier Pathé film Terrible Angoise (2906), which worked along similar lines with an unexpected tragic ending. But then they showed us Edison’s The Watermelon Patch (1905).

This was a truly appalling film, made all the more appalling by the means in which it was presented. A group of black farmworkers raid a watermelon patch, but are chased away by scarecrow figures dressed as skeletons. The workers retire to a farmhouse, where we see them enjoying the watemelons and breaking into a joyous series of dances. At this point, stereotyped images aside (what was it about watermelons that they became so associated with black people and ‘comedy’?), this was a celebratory, almost transgressive film, as they had got away with their ‘crime’ and the dancing had been such fun. But then retribution came. The white farmers who had been giving chase found the farmhouse, blocked up the windows and chimney, then fill the building with smoke. It’s a comedy, so they get out of the building having merely been choked, but it felt that close to having all of the people in the house being burned alive for their sins.

What was particularly shocking was that this film was included in the programme purely for its formal qualities, as an interesting example of cross-cutting. As the catalogue put it:

Alternate cutting is a discursive configuration whose minimal form is the recurrence of each term in two series. In other words, it is impossible to speak of alternate editing when only one of the terms recurs (A-B-A). At a minimum, it requires that each series recur (A-B-A-B). Cross-cutting, for its part, is only one of the forms of alternate editing within which series of events supposedly unfold simultaneously in the narrative universe suggested by the film. Thus, in our view, The Watemelon Patch is a true example of cross-cutting.

So bloody what. Nothing could provide greater evidence of the sheer fatuousness of some aspects of film studies, where form is totally divorced from content. A film like The Watermelon Patch ought to be screened, but with care, and in appropriate circumstances. These were not those circumstances, and all of those I spoke to afterwards were shocked and really quite disturbed that this film was shown.

First film in the afternoon was Figaro (1929), A French version of the Beaumarchais novels. Neil Brand told me beforehand that – man of musical principle that he is – he would not being throwing in themes from Mozart or Rossini, however strong the temptation. So we saw the film for itelf, not as an echo of something else, and very handsome it was, with a spirited title performance from Ernest van Duren. But it struggled a little to combine all three plots, and I did doze off somewhat. It was followed by the second progamme of Alexander Shiryaev films, a consideration of which will come in the report on Day Seven.

Don Alvardo and Phyllis Haver in The Battle of the Sexes

For many, our second Griffith of the day was the best of his late films shown in the festival – The Battle of the Sexes (1928). This was like a statement of intent, the director seemingly saying just look how well I can fit in with the filmmaking of today. He did so by the bold choice of taking one of his Biograph films of old, made in 1914, and producing a remake suitable for the late 1920s in style and theme. Jean Hersholt played a prosperous man of impeccable middle class values who is lured away from his loving wife and family by ruthless gold digger Phyllis Haver. What starts as bright social comedy takes on a darker tone as the wife (Belle Bennett) becomes almost suicidal, their daughter (Sally O’Neill) threatens Haver with a gun, and Hersholt becomes nasty in his refusal to return to hearth and home. Only when an exchange between Haver and her lover Don Alvardo (on better form than in The Drums of Love) reveals her contempt of Hersholt do the scales from his eyes and a happy family reunion ensues. One senses Griffith was not so much not in control of the material as not quite sure where it might take him.

The film is distinguished by a bright, modernistic style, laced with a number of bravura sequences. A scene where Bennett is filmed from above wandering dangerously close to the edge of a roof of a block of flats, followed by the camera being dropped over the edge is the most eye-catching. But what most impressed me was an argument between Hersholt and Haver where each is filmed one either sides of a room, cutting from one to the other, while each paces forwards and backwards with the camera tracking back and forth with them. It made for a particularly vividly animated scene, a look-what-I-can-do gesture certainly, but one that deserved to catch the eye. Finally, Phyllis Haver is excellent as the bracing amoral other woman, who shows not the slightest trace of remorse, nor is she in any way punishd for her view of the world. It would make quite a companion piece with Chicago.

How much was it the work of Griffith reinventing himself for the new age, and how much the product of a whole studio behind him, with talents such as cinematographer Karl Struss, fresh from working on Sunrise? One senses that it was a bit of both, but in its moral sense, and in the clear intention to update the 1914 film (where Donald Crisp had played the father, Fay Tincher the temptress and Lillian Gish the daughter) technically and socially, Griffith was undoubtedly seeking to prove himself at home in the modern film world. Viewed from this point in time he succeeded, even if the film was greeted with disappointment at the time, and led to the further disintegration of his reputation.

The evening was rounded off for me by When Flowers Bloom (1929), an elaborately stencil-coloured short about flowers, intermingled with a light love story, before we had Little Old New York (1923). Directed by Sidney Olcott, this was a tale of early ninetenth-cenury New York, in which Marion Davies comes from Ireland to claim an inheritance, to achieve which she needs to disguise herself as a boy. Never in the history of dramatic entertainment was there a more unconvincing portrayal of a man by a woman, but we went along with it, and the film, though leisurely in pace, included some fine, nostalgic sequences, including a well-staged bare-knuckle boxing content. All in all, it was preferable to – and probably no less accurate than – The Gangs of New York. What distinguished the screening was the musical accompaniment – Elizabeth-Jane Baldry playing the harp for two hours. Marion Davies’ character plays the harp, hence the choice, but it was a herculean and mostly successful effort, with such surprises as her knocking on the side of the harp for the boxing sequences. We did not see her, however – she was down in the pit below the stage, same as the pianists were all week, something of an unfortunate situation. If a musician wanted to acknowledge the applause, they had practically to jump up and down and wave if we were to see them. Not an ideal situation, all in all.

I did not attend the late evening concert of songs about silent films from the silent era, at which one time child star Jean Darling took to the stage alongside Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton. So on to the next day, the penultimate one for me, where we were to encounter John Gilbert in his pomp, the last silent film made by D.W. Griffith, a sea-going electric car, a magical cave journey, and heartache amid the Norwegian snows.

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

Pordenone diary 2008 – day four

For those who may not know, the recumbent figure who supplies the Pordenone silent film festival logo is Donald O’Connor. That’s Donald O’Connor playing Buster Keaton in The Buster Keaton Story (1957). A curious choice, all things considered, but, hey, it works.

Were I a writer of any skill, I would look upon the films that we saw on Tuesday 7 October, and I would draw out unexpected themes and make thoughtful overviews. But diversity was the only theme on offer. For anyone with only general ideas of what silent films comprise, this was the day to have your eyes opened.

Ironically, if there’s one thing that the average person is able to associate with silent film, it’s slapstick, and that’s what we started with (or rather, what I started with, as I missed the Austrian film Kleider Machen Leute that began the day). Under the ‘Rediscoveries’ strand we were offered a barrage of Keystone Film Company comedies, most of them recent discoveries or restorations. For the festival, this marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Keystone-themed festival it ran in 1983.

Mack Sennett, Keystone’s presiding genius, ran his studio as an assembly line, pumping out comedies by the yard, with an accomplished, hard-wearing troupe of performers able to fit themselves perfectly into the rigours of whatever routine Sennett had dreamt up for them this week. Three things were particularly noticeable about the films: the unquenchable vitality of the performers, the opportunistic taste for sketches to be devised out of some local event or eye-catching piece of scenery, and the phenomenal speed. One knows all about the knockabout thrills of American slapstick, but looking at a film like Love, Speed and Thrills (1915), the sheer number of shots, angles and different set-ups was prodigious, and seemed to run counter to the demand for getting out the films cheaply and quickly. They made such work for themselves, simply by the pursuit of comic excellence. Not that one could call all of the films strictly funny as such – not funny now, that is – and that the grotesquely gesticulating Ford Sterling (left) was ever revered as a comedian has left posterity baffled. Sterling pulled every face known to man (and a few that man has now happily forgotten) in his efforts to draw laughter out of the curious Stolen Glory (1912), where he and Fred Mace play warring Civil War veterans, filmed interrupting a genuine war veterans’ parade, apparently without any protest from the participants.

Other Keystones that caughter the eye included A Deaf Burglar (1913), which drew some easy laughs from a situation readily inferred from the title, and A Little Hero (1913), which starred a cat (named Pepper), a dog and Mabel Normand, the dog saving a caged bird from the cat’s predations in a scenario that looked for all the world as though it were borrowed from that deathless British classic, Rescued by Rover. Love, Speed and Thrills more than lived up to its title. One could only look on with astonishment at the violent indignities to which Minta Durfee was put in this frenetic chase comedy. These comedies were the inheritors of the comedy series made by European companies, but in their difference to the works of Max Linder, Cretinetti et al one sees how it was that American cinema, and the idea of America, conquered the world. Their new world dynamism is overpowering. Love, speed and thrills sold America.

And then for something completely different. There is growing interest in European women filmmakers in the silent era, and among their select number is the intriguing figure of Elvira Giallanella, director of Umanità (1919). Not much is known about Giallanella, except that she established a film company, Vera, in 1913, which made a Futurist-inspired production, Mondo baldoria (1913), then formed Liana Film, with great ambitions for extensive production, but with just the one title seeing the light of day – Umanità. This thirty-five minute work is unique. It is an anti-war allegory based on a children’s poem by Vittorio Bravetta. The child protagonists are named Tranquillino and Serenetta, which gives you a fair idea of the filmmaker’s intentions. The children wake up in the night – Tranquillino smokes a cigarette (eye-popping stuff) and has a nightmare, in which the world has been destroyed by war and he and his sister are given the task of rebuilding it. Given the nil budget, we have to rely on our imaginations quite a bit. The futility of war is revealed, for instance, by a neat line of empty boots. Peculiarly, the children are guided by a gnome (the embodiment of one of their toys), across deserted, rocky landscapes. The action wasn’t all that easy to follow, chiefly because the Italian intertitles had been bravely translated by the festival into English verse, at the expense of some logic. Intriguingly, Tranquillino, discovers the seeds of violence in him as he wishes to throw bombs, but the two children resort to prayer and are comforted by a bearded God and Jesus (one of a number of appearances during the Giornate). A film of muddled meaning and technique – who saw it at the time, and what on earth did they make of it? – but out on its own among silent film. The film it reminded me of was Richard Lester’s post-apocalyptic comedy The Bed Sitting Room, the survivors wandering about a shattered, empty world, trying to recover meaning.

Shown in the ‘Film and History’ strand, Umanità was paired with the surviving reel of the five-reeler American film If My Country Should Call (1916). This was not anti-war as such, as its avowed theme was ‘preparedness’ for an America which would shortly join the conflict, but its central, sympathetic character was a mother (played by Dorothy Phillips) whose sentiments were anti-war. It was something of a shock to read a closing intertitle which denounced her attitude as selfish. Otherwise it was a tale of enfeebled manhood (and by extension the nation), redeemed by the promise of fighting. Lon Chaney appeared as a doctor, and scenarist was Ida May Park.

Right up my street was Paul Spehr’s special presentation on the films of William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson. As Spehr’s new book says it, Dickson was The Man Who Made Movies. The Edison employee who was assigned in the early 1890s to solving the problem of creating a photographic motion picture device, Dickson not only – more than anyone else – created motion pictures (the system he devised, with 35mm perforated film, is with us still) but he was a maker of movies in the artistic sense. His films, from the earliest experiments with Edison through to his bold adventures with the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company in the late 1890s, are hauntingly beautiful. I won’t got into every film here, but just to say that Spehr presented them as part of a combined film and computer slide show, and did so with wise aplomb. It is quite something for someone who has just written a 706-page book on his subject to express its essence so simply and clearly. Of the many films he showed, I’ll note just one – Dickson’s very first, Monkeyshines no. 1, miniscule images photographed and laid around a cylinder, before they realised that copying Edison’s earlier invention, the Phonograph, wasn’t quite the way to go. From a microphoto on a cylinder to the big screen of the Verdi – and it’s on YouTube too, the human figure in motion evolving out of incoherence, the ghost in the machine:

Monkeyshines no. 1 (1889), the first American movie

My prize for the most disappointing film of the week went to A Modern Musketeer (1917). This really ought to have been a gem. A complete copy was only recently discovered, and it represents a key point in the development of Douglas Fairbanks’ persona, from his young-man-about-town persona to the swaggering figures of his 1920s historical romps. It seemed to have a cast-iron premise. Fairbanks plays a young man whose mother was addicted to the works of Alexandre Dumas just before he was born, and he is imbued with the spirit of The Three Musketeers, which he then tries to take into modern American life as a twentieth-century D’Artagnan. Fabulous concept – what could possibly go wrong? Well, after overplaying the idea wildly in an energetic opening five minutes, the film then abandons it almost entirely for a muddled, uncertainly-paced comedy-thriller set in the Grand Canyon, with an unpleasantly racist undertone in its depicition of the native American villain. Pianist Ian Mistrorigo (a Pordenone masterclass alumnus) tore along at a terrific pace, trying to make the film what it ought to have been, but the film stubbornly refused to live up to his expectations. It’s great that the film has been found and restored, but it’s unfunny, unthrilling, and frankly clueless. Oh dear.

Ed’s Co-ed, from University of Oregon

At this point I was planning to see two Sessue Hayakawa films, His Birthright (1918) and The Courageous Coward (1919), but the word had got round that Ed’s Co-ed (1929), which had been shown the day before to a minimal audience in the Ridotto, was getting a second screening because people really had to see it. Dutifully I went, and I’m very glad I did. There was a fascinating story behind it. In 1928 a University of Oregon student, Carvel Nelson, got to work on the set of F.W. Murnau’s The City Girl. Bitten with the film bug, he decided to make his own film, working with fellow students and an English professor, and raising finance locally. The Nelson and his eventual co-director James Raley made so bold as to approach Cecil B. DeMille for advice. DeMille put them in touch with his cinematographer, James McBride, who amazingly joined the production as technical director and got paid for it as well. With a 35mm Bell & Howell camera rented from Hollywood, and a cast recruited from across the university, Ed’s Co-ed went into production in February 1929 and had its premiere locally in November of that year.

Ed’s Co-ed is a strikingly accomplished film. McBride’s presence clearly aided the fluid, expressive cinematography, including a number of vivid sequences (a punt drifting on the waters through trees, a close shot of women students looking through a window enraptured by some violin playing), but he could not have claimed responsibility for the immaculately engineered script with central and sub-plots artfully interwoven, nor the highly capable performances from the entire cast. There is not a trace of amateurism about Ed’s Co-ed. The story is that of every college movie you ever saw – country boy Ed comes to college, is picked on by other students, he falls for the girl but is rejected by all after he admits to a crime to cover up for someone else who actually committed it, his talents are recognised (he plays the violin, he’s top in all his grades), he wins through at last. It’s so like ever college film made that you could be fooled by its ordinariness, but this is a college film that actually came from a college, and it is a treasure trove of period attitudes, codes, fashions and language.

The 35mm original of Ed’s Co-ed was destroyed in the 1960s when a 16mm dupe was made. We were told that the university hadn’t shown sufficient interest in the film to want to fund a restoration, which is a shame if true because though it might be a hard sell, a DVD edition could reach both silent film fans and those with an interest in American social history. However, there must be some interest from the university, because you can find the whole of Ed’s Co-ed online (87mins). It’s available in streamed and downloadable forms from the University of Oregon’s Scholar’s Bank website – no music track, but otherwise it’s a good quality encoding, and I warmly recommend it. Praise, by the way, for the accompaniment at Pordenone from Neil Brand (piano) and Günter Buchwald (violin, to match Ed’s playing), overlapping beautifully.

Helen Jerome Eddy and Sessue Hayakawa in The Man Beneath, from http://www.filmmuseum.nl

I missed most of the evening screenings, owing to a genial supper with a gaggle of pianists, but I returned for the last film of the day, The Man Beneath (1919). This is one of the films recently discovered and restored by the Nederlands Filmmuseum of Sessue Hayakawa, the Japanese-American star who has attracted such critical and archival interest of late. Hayakawa is fascinating not just for his star presence and position as an Asian performer in the heart of Hollywood, but for his thinking about his role and the degree to which he tried to combine positive images of himself as a representative Japanese figure with the demands of the box office, through his position as an independent producer.

The Man Beneath was made by Hayakawa’s own Haworth Pictures Corporation, and it came at a time when he felt it was right to expand his range somewhat. Hence the peculiar set-up, where we get a Japanese actor, playing a Hindu doctor, in an American film, set in Scotland. Hayakawa plays Dr Chindi Ashuter, who is in love with the Scottish Kate Erskine, and she in love with him, though she is held back by the fear of the social consequences of a mixed marriage. Her sister is married to an associate (white) of Ashuter’s, whose entrapment by a secret society and rescue by Ashuter forms the main action of the film. But it is Ashuter and Kate’s thwarted love that is the real theme. He returns to Scotland, but she sorrowfully rejects him, and he leaves sadder and wiser. Of course, a mixed marriage was never going to be shown upon the screen in 1919, so the plot had nowhere else to go, but what lingers in the mind is the intensity of the feelings, particularly as expressed in a luminous performance by Helen Jerome Eddy as Kate. Hayakawa is less of a presence, curiously enough, but one shot where he stares in anguish at his reflection in the mirror and tears at his face, drawing blood, says everything.

And so we saw farewell to Day Four, and look forward to the morrow, bringing us smouldering South American passions, Austrian troops scaling mountains, a near-lynching presented as comedy, a Mozart-free Figaro, a gold digger triumphant, and bare knuckle boxing accompanied by the harp.

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

100 years ago

As promised, the Bioscope is starting up a new occasional series, to be called 100 Years Ago, which will reproduce texts from the original British film trade journal The Bioscope, from exactly 100 years ago.

The Bioscope included reports on film and film exhibition around the world, and this piece reported on a strike of nickelodeon projectionists and singers (songs were a common part of early cinema shows) in Chicago.

Artistes and Operators Strike

A somewhat humourous situation recently arose in Chicago, where the ladies and gentlemen who warble such sweet music at the five-cent picture shows joined forces with the bioscope operators and “struck.” There are now over 400 picture shows, employing about 900 people, and they have formed an Operators’ Union. The strikers complain that some of them have been forced to work twelve hours a day. One of the leaders say [sic] “I have known several instances where they did not have time to stop for their meals. I saw a performer bite into a sandwich, leave it on a chair until his act was done, and then finish it.

“If we cannot secure eight-hour days and the pay we ask, this army of employees will stand at the doors of these amusement places Monday and persuade patrons not to enter until the union demands are met.”

On the following Monday, Miss Leonora Drake stood in front of a five-cent theatre on the West Side, and warbled the latest illustrated song. Actors and actresses stop [sic] beside her, and when the crowd paused to listen they called out to them:

“Stay where you are. Don’t go in that theatre. It’s unfair. We’re on a strike, and if you’re with us stay on the outside. She’ll sing. Don’t you think that’s worth a decent salary?”

And while Leonora sang, theatre patrons stood outside and listened.

All over the city striking five-cent theatre artists adopted similar tactics to compel theatre owners to agree to union demands. Vaudeville performers did their turns for nothing out in the middle of the street; teams danced and sang, and moving picture operators, with no machines to operate, explained to the crowds what the strike was for, and declared that five-cent theatre artists were being driven like slaves for the entertainment of the public.

Latest advices [sic] from the scene of war do not tell us if the strike is ended yet.

The Bioscope, 16 October 1908, p. 17

I don’t know what happened to the strike, but on leisure (including cinema) and the eight hours in the day rallying call of American workers at this time, see Roy Rosenzweig’s classic Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and leisure in an industrial city, 1870-1920 (Cambridge university Press, 1983).

Pordenone diary 2008 – day three

The Verdi at night

There is a lot that goes on at Pordenone. While the main film shows takes place in the Verdi theatre, in three sessions (from 9.00, 14.30 and 20.30), supplementary screenings (often 16mm or video formats) take place in a side theatre, the Ridotto. This is also the venue for the weekly talks given to the Collegium, a gathering of selected students who are attached to the festival for the week and write a paper at the end of it. There are masterclasses each day, on the art of combining music with silent film. There is a book fair, which has book launches every evening. There are assorted special events and lectures, notably the Jonathan Dennis Memorial Lecture (named after a much-admired New Zealand film archivist who died too young), which this year was given by Eileen Bowser. And there are meeting of specialists groups, such as Domitor and Women and Film History International.

In between all this, it is essential to take time out and sit at one of the pavement cafes (the Posta, opposite the Verdi, for choice), with cappucino at the ready, waiting for the world to stoop by for a chat. The world invariably does. Pordenone is the ideal spot for learning about others’ projects, exchanging ideas, hatching schemes. So, hello to all those I met – including a smattering of Bioscope regulars – and look out for the fruits of projects large and small, maybe, one day. Some of these took precedence over the films shown, hence some of the gaps in the reports (which I hope those who saw the films may rectify by adding their impressions to the comments, please).

And so to Monday 6 October. Out there in something called the real world stockmarkets crashed, banks crumbled to dust, and you wondered first if there would be any airlines to fly us back, and then if that would really be such a bad thing. In our world, we had Jacques Feyder and, to these eyes, the interesting issue of servants. There were four of Feyder’s earliest films on show, all part of the ‘French touch’ strand. Des Pieds et des Mains (1915) told its romantic tale ingeniously through shots of hands and feet alone; Tetes de Femmes, Femmes de Tete (1916) had two women wittily getting the better of the errant husband of one of them; Un Conseil d’Ami (1916) echoed this by having a man puzzled by his social failure advised by a wiser, older man; and La Faute d’Orthographe (1919) told a comic tale of an ambitious officer worker let down by his inability to spell, his salvation unexpectedly coming in the form of a burglar at the office who corrected the man’s spelling on an application form while about his own business.

These were elegant, artfully-composed works, notable for emphasis on close shots, so that one saw relatively little of the broader social background, and instead concentrated on eyes, faces, and details of house interiors. And servants. I was fascinated by the compliant figures who appeared at the edge of a frame, merely to announce an arrival, pour a drink and deliver a message. This was class-bound stuff, accepted as the norm – how such a narrative should be constructed, who it should be about, how they should behave. There’s a famous line uttered by the title character in Pinero’s play The Second Mrs Tanqueray, which sums it up:

Servants are only machines made to wait upon people – and to give evidence in the divorce courts.

But I wanted to know where the servants went once they respectfully slipped out of shot. There were other worlds out there, to the edges, away from the selfish concerns of the characters on which the films chose to concentrate. I enjoy picking out these counter-narratives, the stories one can imagine running through the film that were not in the filmmakers’ conscious mind – or perhaps they were, as these early Feyder films were notable for the precision with which shots were populated and framed. In two of the films, the great Françoise Rosay – towering figure in French cinema, and of course Feyder’s wife – appeared as a figure in the background; in one a guest at a party, on another a passenger on a bus. These were films that encouraged you to look closely, films to savour.

Poster for The Sorrows of Satan, from Wikipedia

And then it was the Griffith of the day, The Sorrows of Satan (1926). As I’ve said, the late Griffiths were films I’d managed to avoid up til now, and I came to them with prejudices gleaned from the standard film histories. Re-reading some writings subsequently, I can see that these films have always had their champions, but the general audience reaction at Pordenone was one of genuine surprise that the films were so good. To my mind, the best of them was The Sorrows of Satan.

The omens were not good. A tale of young love thwarted by the appearance of Satan himself, taken from the novel of the ludicrously moralistic Victorian novelist Marie Corelli, filmed by a man whose lapses into Victorianism show him at his worst. The startling opening shot of angels and devils at war above a giant heavenly staircase may have confirmed the worst fears of some, or else alerted us to a sense that here was a film with the courage of its convictions and the skill to display them. The two lovers are played by Ricardo Cortez, as an aspiring writer living in a garret, and Carol Dempster (on fine, mannerism-free form – her final screen role), another aspiring writer living next door. The relationship between the two is built up gradually, with a fine sense of pace and telling detail (as was evidenced in the best parts of Sally of the Sawdust). Then Cortez rages against his fate, specifically against God, and suddenly Adolphe Menjou has appeared at his side. This was one of the best appearances in a film that I can remember. We know he’s the Devil, but he’s also Menjou at his mostly Gallically elegant, fresh from A Woman of Paris, looking just so pleased with everything and in total control of all about him.

He leads Cortez away from Dempster and into a debauched social life (excellent change in visual scale), culminating in marriage to ultra-vamp Lya de Putti, which anyone could have told him was going to end in tears. Again and again there were striking camera set-ups (clearly inspired by German cinema), with telling composition and atmospheric, apposite lighting. It was all terribly moralistic, of course, but entirely justified within the parameters it had established. Mercifully we weren’t shown Menjou turning into his Satan self – it was far more effective to show just the winged shadow and the horror on Cortez’s face. In the end, when Satan has been shaken off, the lovers are reunited, but there is no other reward. Neither becomes the great writer each aspired to be – forgiveness is all. I thought this was a great film.

Frank Scheide speaking to the Collegium

I made a tactical error in bypassing Gloria (1921), a commemorative record of ceremonies held to mark the death of 650,000 Italian troops in the First World War, which reports suggest was extrordinary. Instead I went to one of the Collegium sessions, on theatre and film. There were interesting short addresses given by David Mayer, Phil Carli and especially Frank Scheide, on the relationship between vaudeville/variety and film, but I wasn’t entirely sure what the Collegium (students attached to the festival for the week) were expected to get out of it all. Speaking to some past and present Collegium members, it seems that culmulatively the concept works, as they learn from each other, and of course experience the Giornate in all of its richness over the week.

The Corrick Collection is a collection of short films collected by an Australian family of touring entertainers from early in the last century. The first part of the collection was presented last year; in part one of the remainder, we saw a selection of real gems – an unidentified record of the coronation of Edward VII in 1902; Pathé’s 1903 tableaux-like Marie-Antoinette, featuring a gruesome scene where she is taunted in prison by a severed head on the end of a pole; a 1908 Pathé travel film of life in Sudan; and a dazzling trick film with cut-out figure made by British magician-turned-filmmaker Walter Booth, The Hand of the Artist.

This was followed by a hour-long documentary on the work of the festival’s great discovery, Alexander Shiryaev, but we’ll cover him in full in the report on Day Seven.

Tactical error no. 2 was missing The Kiss of Mary Pickford (1926), the delightful Soviet comedy inspired by the visit of Fairbanks and Pickford to the USSR, though I did see it once years ago. For many that I spoke to it was one of the highlights of the festival.

In the evening, we went on holiday. Maciste in Vacanza (1921) was one of a great number of films made in Italy following the huge success of Cabiria which were vehicle for the strongman from that film, Maciste, played by Bartolomeo Pagano. Here were saw Pagano more or less as himself, a strongman film-star beset by fans wherever he goes, who needs urgently to go on vacation to recover his strength. So he does, in a little car which he rather disturbingly refers to as his wife, though he is still pestered at every turn (‘Maciste, please move my cottage nearer the town’ asks an elderly countrywoman). While the film was in this self-referential mood it was great fun. Then it got caught up in a mystery plot set in a castle with too many intertitles and rather lost its momentum, but overall it was a happy piece of fun.

The film was shown, along with other Italian silents at the festival, in tribute to the late film historian and Pordenone stalwart, Vittorio Martinelli. So we also saw a sonorised nature film on the life of the cricket, from nature film specialist Roberto Omegna, and a travelogue of Sicily. And so ended Day Three for me, missing the late night French film Paris en Cinq Jours for a discussion on film archives and their collaborative future in the UK.

Keep your eyes peeled for Day Four, where we will see the evils of war, the first films ever made, a Japanese actor playing a Hindu living in Scotland, and why Keystone represents the spirit of America.

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

The Film Programme

A break in the Pordenone reports to let you know that this Friday (October 17), BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme will be dedicated to silent film, with Neil Brand on the piano, and the discussion including a consideration of Bill Morrison’s found footage work Decasia and the archiving of early film.

As usual, the programme will be available online for a week after the broadcast through the Listen Again service.

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

Pordenone diary 2008 – day one

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.

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
Pordenone diary 2008 – day seven

The sounds of early cinema in Britain

A conference has been announced by the AHRC-funded ‘Beyond Text’ Network, “The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain” (the AHRC is the UK’s funding council for research into the arts and humanities; ‘Beyond Text’ is an AHRC programme looking at areas of research beyond the printed word):

The AHRC-Funded Beyond Text Network “The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain” is delighted to announce the dates of the first event:

The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain: Textual, Material and Technological Sources

Institute of Musical Research and the Barbican, London, UK
Sunday 7th to Tuesday 9th June 2009

The first decades of film exhibition in the UK were characterized by flux and experimentation. Musical and sonic practices were often improvisatory, but always contingent upon the resources available, their stage of technological development, and the exhibition venue itself, which might have been a music hall, fairground, theatre, or purpose-built venue. Elements of performativity and contingency continued well into the sound era; live musical performance long remained a key part of film exhibition in many cinemas.

This conference is the first of four events organised to enable, encourage, and consolidate inter-/cross-/trans-disciplinary research and practical activity in this field. We invite interested parties from all related disciplines to participate. We anticipate that such parties may include early cinema and film researchers, curators and archivists, musicologists, sociologists, historians and theorists of popular culture. As a network event, we are able to offer a substantial number of grants to subsidise travel and accommodation costs for event participants, and will offer two postgraduate student scholarships (UK) to enable attendance. We will send out a call for papers shortly.

As the conference title suggests, the focus of the event is “sources”:

  • What sonic and musical practices existed alongside the exhibition of early film in Britain?
  • What sources are available to assist our understanding of these practices?
  • What are their problems?
  • How may we excavate them?
  • What challenges does Britain face in the preservation of the existing historical legacy of these practices, instruments, equipment, and spaces, and what should take priority?
  • Were distinctive musical practices pursued in Britain, compared to other countries?

Preference will be given to papers with a British focus, though we may be able to accommodate papers that explore the same issues in other national contexts.


  • Key-note speakers
  • Screenings of silent films with live accompaniment

About the Network:

Through 2009 and 2010, the project will hold two conferences and two workshops as a means of consolidating research and practical activity on sound’s and music’s roles as practiced in the exhibition of early and ‘silent’ cinema in Britain. The second conference will focus more strongly on questions of performance and reception. The two workshops will focus on sound practices in the “silent” era, and on live accompaniment, however conceived (whether improvised and/or historically-informed and/or contemporary).

Principal investigator: Dr Julie Brown (RHUL, UK)
Co-investigator: Dr Annette Davison (Edinburgh, UK)

No conference web address as yet, but beyond the academic-speak (why was the profoundly ugly word ‘performativity’ ever allowed?) this sounds to be a worthwhile event which is certain to attract a good range of interested parties. I’ll publish the call for papers just as soon as it is made.

The passion of Joan of Arc

In the Nursery is a Sheffield-based group which has made a speciality of soundtracks to silent films, including The Cabinet of Caligari, Asphalt, Man with a Movie Camera, Hindle Wakes, A Page of Madness and the Mitchell & Kenyon compilation Electric Edwardians. Its latest production is Carl Th. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, which they have been touring since April. A CD of the soundtrack has just been released, which, we are ressued, “reflects the film’s dramatic highs and lows – from the emotional close-up photography of the trial through to the fevered final scenes surrounding Joan’s death”. More information on the In the Nursery site, which has ample information on recordings and shows, with an MP3 download section.