Verdi theatre and Posta cafe, Pordenone, Italy
Every Giornate del Cinema del Muto has its particular theme. The world-renowned silent film festival, held in Pordenone, Italy every October, programmes according to themes. This year we were offered films from the Japanese Schochiku Company, three Soviet filmmakers (Kalatozov, Room and Push) and French clowns 1907-1914 as the main strands, but there is always another theme at play, usually a reflection of the world outside from which we festival-goers enjoy a week’s respite. And 2010’s theme was hard times.
Hard times first of all for the festival itself. The world economic crisis hit the Giornate as it has hit everywhere else, and the results were evident everywhere. The modest accreditation fee had gone up. The traditional Film Fair could not take place. There was only the one film venue (with the positive spin to be taken from this that everyone had a chance to see every film on show). There were fewer films on show. Early publicity for the festival had promised films from Weimar Germany and the comedy short films of Leo McCarey – they were not there.
Hard times were also the topic of many a festival conversation, particularly among those from cultural institutions, and especially among the British waiting to see how deeply the axe will fall come the Comprehensive Spending Review later this month. Everything cost a little more, the exchange rates were unkind, the invitations to guests were down. Hard times indeed.
And yet, and yet. This was also a particularly successful Giornate. If there were few out-and-out classics on display, there was a profusion of discoveries and revelations. The audiences were excellent (it was a struggle to find a seat for the evening shows), and among them there were many new, young faces either eager for silent films alone or simply widening their appreciation of film culture overall. There was a vitality about the place. Add on top of that some glorious sunshine (the one obligatory day of torrential rain aside – Pordenone is near to the Alps, after all), a most welcoming town, convivial company and an embarrassment of fine eating places, and we were in the best place possible enjoying the most civilised of activities.
And so we begin another Bioscope Pordenone diary – daily reports on each of the eight days of the Giornate, which ran 2-9 October 2010. Because your scribe was only there for five days or so, there will be some additional reporting from our substitute reporter who is known only by the name of The Mysterious X. His (or her) views on the films on show will be given in due course. But to kick things off, you are in my hands.
Cadging a lift in the Giornate car
There are three airports to choose from if you are flying to Pordenone. Most come via Venice or Treviso; I took the more scenic route via Trieste, which takes longer but rewards you with glorious views over the Adriatic as you take the airport bus into the city. Or at least I would have gone that way had I not been fortunate to be offered a lift in a Giornate car with John Sweeney, one of the festival’s team of supremely talented pianists. So it was that I arrived at Pordenone well ahead of schedule and in royal style. Registration was in the new town Library, set around a beautiful colonnaded square, and armed with catalogue, other literature and a lurid orange festival bag, I was able to get to my first film having only missed a collection of French clowns films and Nelly Kaplan’s 1983 documentary on Abel Gance. The films are screened in the new Verdi theatre in the centre of Pordenone, a strikingly modernist building with curving white walls, lots of glass, and oh so comfortable seating within for the several hundred accredited to the festival (locals swelled our numbers still further by coming to the evening screenings).
And so to Minato No Nihon Musume (Japan 1933), or Japanese Girls at the Harbour. The festival’s main strand was films of the Shochiku studio, founded in 1920, and three of its leading filmmakers, Yasukiro Shimazu, Hiroshi Shimizu and Kiyohiko Ushihara. All three worked at Shochiku’s Tokyo studios, where the preference was for modern dramas with a strong element of Western influences. This was very clear in Shimizu’s Japanese Girls at the Harbour. The film told of two young women, Sunako (Michiko Oikawa) and Dora (Yukiko Inoue). Sunako falls in love with Henry (Ureo Egawa) who becomes involved with gangsters. He falls for another woman, who is shot and wounded by Sunako, who flees the city and becomes a prostitute. Meanwhile Henry marries steady Dora. Then Sunako returns…
The film was distinguished by striking pictorial compositions and an array of eye-catching devices, among them dissolves, tracking shots and jump cuts. When Sunako shoots her rival the camera zooms in on her face in jolts, then just as joltingly zooms out again. It was further distinguished by fascinating elements of Westernisation, particulaly associated with Henry, including suits, dance styles, clothing, motor cars, cigarette smoking, piano playing, and the prominent positioning of a Christian church. What was problematic was that none of these elements combined to make a coherent film story. Right from the outset you got an unsettling sense of no one shot really connecting with another. The narrative drifted, and just what point the director hoped to make became obscured as the plot thickened. Uncertainty hung over everything, and not in a deliberate way. There were good things there, but the individual elements never quite cohered.
But there was more than enough there to whet the appetite, and I see that the film is available on a Shimizu boxed set from Criterion, which includes the one film of his that I knew beforehand, the utterly delightful Mr Thank You (Arigatau-san) (1936). This was a great favourite of the late John Gillett, programmer extraordinaire at the National Film Theatre who did so much to bring Japanese films to the West. But Mr Thank You is a sound film – Japanese films continued silent for quite some while into the 1930s, but not quite as far as 1936.
The entertainments carried on, but I did not. I’m not a one for shows were every seat is taken and you have to sit where a ticket tells you too (if you’re as tall as me this is a major issue), so I avoided the evening’s special, ticket-only screenings that launched the festival. For the record there was Ivor Montagu’s short film The Tonic (UK 1928), based on an idea by H.G. Wells and starring Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton (which I do regret missing); a new animation by Richard Williams, Circus Drawings (UK 2010) and Buster Keaton’s peerless The Navigator (USA 1924) with musical accompaniment from the grandly named European Silent Screen Virtuosi (Günter Buchwald and friends).
Instead I chatted to friends at the Posta cafe, which is situated opposite the Verdi and fuels the festival with cappuccini, where we discussed looming budget cuts with gallows humour. Then I shuffled off back to my hotel and prepared myself for the rigours of the day to come. Which you’ll learn all about in Day Two.
Pordenone diary 2010 – day two
Pordenone diary 2010 – day three
Pordenone diary 2010 – day four
Pordenone diary 2010 – day five
Pordenone diary 2010 – day six
Pordenone diary 2010 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2010 – day eight
The nice thing about talking to people about hard times is the reminder that it’s not just us with problems. The Japanese movies sound worth searching for. I mostly get to see movies set in feudal or mythological times. I always enjoy your photos from Pordenone.
No doubt we will have other opportunities to see The Tonic, but it was a shame you missed it; despite the high-powered associations, it’s a lightweight comedy with hints of slapstick that never quite reach the heights…and yet, it’s great to see it; lost for eighty years, the grainy print we saw is the result of four years work in Germany to retrieve anything viewable from the 16mm source; and thanks to their efforts we get a superb performance from a young and sweet Elsa Lanchester as a terrible housemaid, and a cameo from a young Charles Laughton seemingly trying out make-ups for his Mr Hobson….the plot is the corny one of an inheritance scam, the family uniting to hasten their inheriting from an elderly, hypochondriac, aunt; Elsa is despatched to unwittingly hasten the end. One superb sight-gag with a parrot does not quite compensate for the blown climax with a bathchair…but while not a classic, The Tonic was not an embarrassment either.
I would not have missed The Tonic had I bothered to check the catalogue. I have great fondness for another of the Lanchester/Laughton/Wells/Montagu collaborations, Bluebottles, though it is never as funny as it hopes to be and has plenty of misjudged moments (such as seem to characterise The Tonic too). More expert hands could have turned Elsa Lanchester into a silent comdienne of the first rank. But she was in the wrong country.
On the basis of The Tonic I would agree entirely….but time as well as geography would have been against her; it’s 1928 already….and there would always be the question, a perennial in the UK, of whether she would entirely abandon a flourishing stage career to concentrate on the screen…