It’s Monday 5 October 2009, and again the Bioscope’s man of mystery rises early, takes up the notepad and pen and dutifully arrives the moment doors open on the Pordenone silent film festival to catch day three’s varied offerings. Here’s our correspondent’s report:
Graziella (France 1925) is a Film D’Art adaptation of an epic poem of lost love; set in a fishing town in late 18th C Italy, it boasted stunning photography of the coast and villages around Naples, which seemingly had changed little in the intervening 150 years; it used the local faces realistically, and only the lead actress Nina Vanna seemed a little out of place. The storm sequence is superbly handled, and was vaguely reminiscent of the more famous tank-work featured in Napoleon, and utterly believable. The story, quite slight, is of two aristocratic and somewhat patronising Frenchmen slumming it in Naples until they find work as fishermen – as an experiment – and love. The ending, which I won’t reveal, comes entirely out of nowhere – possibly the source poem by Lamartine gives some earlier clue – but a film well worth watching for many differing reasons, and not necessarily the plot.
At 79 minutes, Graziella was a mere appetiser to the main course; 2 hrs 39 mins of The Ten Commandments (USA 1923); shown as part of the ‘Canon Revisited’ thread, whereby films are screened, and perhaps reappraised, that may be considered warhorses by the older generation of cineastes but have actually been seldom if ever seen by those under 40 … and as a relative (ten years or so) newcomer to all this, people like me. It is a leviathan of a film, but you can only admire the craft, the imagery, and the ambition of Cecil B. De Mille, that calls a fully staged biblical mini-epic ‘The Prologue’ to the contemporary tale of building graft that follows. As all the stills and clips I had ever seen of this film had only ever referred to The Prologue – specifically The Flight From Egypt, that I had always assumed it was a full scale biblical epic, and the modern sequences came as a big surprise. In the bar afterwards, it seemed I was not the only one…..so chalk one point for the idea of The Canon Revisited thread. The film itself – the main part, if you like – features low-key but very decent acting, and written with some wit; the overt moralising tempered and the pill sugared with the use of humour and the more New Testament message coming from the Good Son contrasting with the amorality of the Bad Son, and the Old Testament brandishing by the Mother, and of course the Exodus-based Prologue. It certainly doesn’t drag, but it does feel entirely like two different films …
After lunch; Le Chant De L’Amour Triomphant France 1923) another Tourjansky-directed film from Albatros, this time an adaptation of a Turgenev poem of love, betrayal and cod-oriental mysticism. It started as a standard tale of chivalry and honour around a love rivalry, before turning a deal darker (and vaguely more absurd) with the introduction of a ‘Hindu’ mystic. Not one of Albatros’ finest hour and a bits, not a film I would want to sit through again.
That was followed by the first of the ‘Divas’ thread, this show dedicated to the mighty Asta Nielsen; here represented by three fragments and rarities; unedited footage of Asta modelling the most hideous evening wear; fragments of Steuermann Holk (Germany 1920), a nautical drama co-starring Paul Wegener, and a truncated (by about 1200 ft) export print of Die Geliebte Roswolskys (Germany 1921) a drama of what we would now call celebrity culture, again with Wegener. Asta is a struggling dancer/actress who becomes famous through the (inaccurate) public perception, fuelled by the media, of who she is sleeping with … couldn’t happen now … unfortunately the print, rescued from a South American copy, bore all the hallmarks of being abridged for that market; I couldn’t decide, and nor could others, whether the perceived incoherence was the fault of the film as it stands, or the development of ‘Nodding Syndrome’ which we all seemed to get during this one .. .which has the effect of random editing anyway. Either way, it seemed a shame that we weren’t getting to see Asta at her best advantage. The catalogue did make it clear that this was a round-up of fragments and mis-identified films, and contrasting the Divas in similar roles, but an opportunity was missed, I feel, for one great film each to show us quite why Asta, and her contemporaries featured in the thread, were regarded as Divas in the first place.
Livelier by far were the further adventures in the Holmes strand; a 1910 Danish entry, Sherlock Holmes I Bondefangerklor wherein Holmes solves the case of a tourist drugged and mugged in a dockside cafe; always nice to see an Edwardian car chase, but this was Holmes in name only; a dockside mugging being a long way from the aristocratic intrigues we’re used to. The Old Man In The Corner: The Kensington Mystery (UK 1924) is the first episode of a Stoll series based on tales from the Baroness Orczy; it’s a fairly standard tale of murder for inheritance, but told in flashback by the solver of the crime, the eponymous hero of the seres; an ageing murder hobbyist who lurks in courts studying human nature; and he is telling the tale to an eager lady journalist in the local cafe, for the price of a cup of tea. Finally, The Amazing Partnership (UK 1921), a feature this time from Stoll, about a female private detective, masquerading as the owner of a secretarial agency, taking on a male business partner to help solve a string of jewel robberies. A good cast from the Stoll stable – Gladys Mason is our heroine, Milton Rosmer is the two-fisted action hero; Harry Agar Lyons, of course, runs the suburban safe-house where Teddy Arundell is trying to escape justice. It’s a neat little film, with a nice touch where the kidnap of Gladys is achieved from a theatre stage door in broad daylight, by Harry’s ruse of setting up film cameras, and holding back the gathering crowd as if a serial episode is being shot; when Gladys is bundled into the back seat of the car, the bystanders are applauding …
Settling down in pace again for 2h 44m of Carmen (France 1926) directed by Jacques Feyder for Albatros. Although we had been shown many fine films already, this was, for me, the first masterpiece of the week. Goregeously shot on location in Navarre and Castile, and superbly cast; Raquel Meller was a Spanish actress I had not heard of, but she WAS Carmen; seemingly not acting at all – like Louise Brooks in Germany, say – she was utterly believable as the sexy gypsy that men fall madly in love with, and yet would not want to be up against her in a fight. Louis Lerch as Don Jose transforms from callow youth to half-mad criminal fugitive well; the supporting character actors are equally good and are given time to develop three dimensions. Could not fault the film, though some thought it overlong, I didn’t personally. The music this night was again from the very talented Touve Ratovondrahety – though this time I felt he had all his knobs turned right up to eleven and my ears were ringing at the finish.
In total contrast, there followed an offering from the Jugoslavian Film Archive – three examples of silent underground porn films from – it is believed – 1920’s-1940’s. After a serious warning as to what to expect – and the option to exit the Cinema – from Festival Director David Robinson, we were launched into some quite grainy medium-hard core, accompanied by Günther Buchwald and I believe John Sweeney – my notes are skimpy here (it was Donald Sosin. Ed.) – as if we were having tea at the Savoy, 1910. Porn has never sounded quite so classy. There were some disappointed comments from some audience members as to the picture quality (names available on application to the Bioscope, price five guineas (Oh yeah? Ed.)) but for me it added an authentic flavour, as if we were peering through a smoky haze and an alcoholic fug at a 9.5mm set-up in a backroom somewhere in 1930. The print quality was the only aspect that left anything to the imagination, by the way.
Well, if that was Monday, then what follows next will unquestionably be Tuesday, where we can promise you (courtesy of our stubbornly anonymous reporter) more divas, more Holmes, a Japanese rediscovery, an avant garde diversion and a Pola Negri film with the sound of dropping jaws hitting the cinema floor …