Pordenone diary 2010 – day six

Pordenone at night

Thursday 7 October loomed, and your scribe was packing his bags. I had decided that five days in Pordenone at the Giornate del Cinema Muto was enough for me this year, and I was heading off to spend a couple of days in beautiful Trieste. But I could not do so without having set in place plans to ensure that the Bioscope could provide its habitual comprehensive coverage of the festival. You may remember that last year, when I didn’t attend the Giornate, the Bioscope reports were written by an anonymous reporter, subsequently dubbed The Mysterious X. Happily X was at the festival this year and just as keen to pick up the quill pen once again, while just as insistent on maintaining his anonymity. And, by a remarkale coincidence, the first film he reports on is a Benjamin Christensen masterpiece, the film the great director made after producing The Mysterious X … spooky, eh?


Bright and early – well, early – to the Verdi for a film I had anticipated since seeing it had been programmed; Hævnens Nat (Denmark 1916) (Blind Justice) an early feature directed by Benjamin Christensen; Pordenone in the past has given me a taste for Scandinavian silents; on the whole, the lighting and camera techniques seem to me, to have been way in advance of the rest of the world … and one sequence in particular in this thriller demonstrated that to me yet again.

After a strange prologue where we see the director demonstrating an illuminated model of the house where the main action of the film is to take place, we’re into the action; Strongman John is on the run, for a crime he didn’t commit and with his very young son; hiding out in a barn, he decides to try and steal milk from the main house, but is discovered by the young daughter of the family; he explains the situation, and persuades her not to betray him … but the awakened father forces the story out of her, John is captured while vowing revenge, and jailed …

Hævnens Nat (1916), with director Benjamin Christensen playing Strongman John, from http://www.dfi.dk

Fifteen years later, John has suffered physically and psychologically inside the prison, but is now out; naively, even unknowingly, he falls in with a gang of burglars intent on robbing the same house … fifteen years on, the girl is married and now the mistress of the house with a young family … in his confused state, John starts to exact his revenge, not knowing that one of the children is his now-adopted son …

The setting of the film – an ornately reproduced and highly realistic mansion, as introduced proudly at the start – almost becomes a character within it; while light and airy during the day, it seems both claustrophobic and yet flimsily undefendable as night falls and menace lurks. The bravura sequence occurs at the point where the invader spies the young woman through the keyhole; we see it from his point of view, the young girl vignetted, deep focus, within the ornate Edwardian escutcheon, the layers of the lock’s mechanism visible; she senses the viewer’s presence and moves out of shot … seconds later the keyhole cover is slid across our view from her side of the door. We cut to a view of the room’s interior … the woman seemingly
paralysed with fear; the camera slowly tracks back, initially revealing the french windows we are looking through … and then the silhouetted shape of the hulking intruder, seeing the same thing … and those french windows look so fragile now …

It’s a powerful shot now; through the use of imaginative sets, superb lighting and a dramatic camera move, the audience is utterly involved in the menace at work … in the voyeuristic sense, and in the complete powerlessness of our situation as an audience, let alone the situation of the girl in the room … it would be impressive in a film made ten or
twenty years later; stunning in a film of 1916. I won’t reveal the ending; that would spoil things for you if you have yet to see the film; if not screening near you, it’s available on DVD from the Danish Film Institute with a Neil Brand piano score.

Shingun (1930), from http://www.cinetecadelfriuli.org/gcm

Straight on into the next film in the Shochiku strand of Japanese dramas, Shingun (Japan 1930) (Marching On) … in the programme billed as being the Japanese near-equivalent, and inspired by, Wings and The Big Parade … well, up to a point … it starts delightfully; a farmer’s boy, obsessed with his balsa-and-paper flying models and with dreams of real aircraft, develops a friendship with the daughter of the local squire, who introduces the lad to her pilot brother and his flying officer friends; through hard work, and despite the handicap of a lowly class status, he eventually succeeds in qualifying as a pilot and joining the air force. So far, so good, a peacetime Wings story, a cute cross-class nascent love story developing through fine performances by the two leads; Denmei Suzuki and Kinuyo Tanaka were becoming old friends to us by now … the pairing obviously a prized asset to the studio. But right at this point the film takes the most sinister turn, particularly with the hindsight of history. “Is War Likely??” asks a title (I may be paraphrasing, but not wildly) “Yes, Japan has suffered enough indignities” and so we march into the final third of the film …

Well, from here, The Big Parade or Wings, it ain’t. The film-makers might well have seen them, but failed to learn much from them in how to construct either feasible aerial or battlefield sequences. Unlike Wings, the aerial sequences are constructed from a combination of appalling model work – honestly, they look like they were shot using the boy’s balsa models from the start of the film – and laughably bad back projection, as the gunner from a doomed plane passes vital strategic information to another by wing walking and handing it to his opposite number … our farmboy hero. Inevitably, this second plane, piloted by the girl’s brother, is brought down into the battlefield – full of shellfire but little else – but look! A convenient Harley Davidson and sidecar for our hero to requisition, and to load his wounded friend into … after a few minutes bouncing around the field – if the pilot wasn’t seriously injured before, he would be now – they get caught in an explosion, and the bike wrecked … but look!! A convenient horse, grazing in a contented manner, but about to get a rude shock as two airmen clamber on board to complete their getaway … except more shrapnel comes their way, and the horse is abandoned … but look!!! A convenient artillery tractor, abandoned in full working order, it seems, and our heroes complete their escape to safety at around 1½ miles per hour … the strategic information is delivered to the relevant Colonel, the battle is heroically won, etc. Which would be fairly hilarious, except for the nagging thought that the massive amount of military hardware on and personnel on screen, supplied by the Japanese army, are rehearsals for the invasion of Manchuria that would happen within the year. If a silent film with such a nationalistic propaganda theme existed from, say, Germany in 1938, would it be shown with such alacrity? I wonder … anyway, it could have been a great film; it started with real charm, but it did seem as if the film was kidnapped by a propaganda ministry two-thirds of the way through.

The film screened after lunch, Bukhta Merti (USSR 1926) (Death Bay), was an Abram Room-directed film set in the Russian Navy at the time of the Russian Civil War, and described by Ian Christie in the catalogue as a “Propagandist adventure story” … well, I had just sat through one of those, so I gave it a rest, and decided a Spritz Aperol in the Italian sunshine, and a bit of a natter with like-minded people held more appeal. These things happen on the Thursdays, I find … shamingly, I enjoyed the chatting so much that I decided to forego the Jonathan Dennis lecture, given by former Channel Four supremo Jeremy Isaacs, and the man who green-lit Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood series; for which the world remains grateful; on the basis that he had given a talk locally and recently, so I felt no desire to hear it again; a mistake, as this was a totally different event, and took the form (I was told subsequently) of an extended tribute to Kevin Brownlow, David Gill, and the making of Hollywood; that I would loved to have seen. A mistake on my part … these things, too, happen on Thursdays …

But no missing the night’s big event; the farewell performance of Laura Minici Zotti and her magic lantern show La Grande Arte della Luce e dell’Ombra (The Great Art of Light and Shadow), culled from the enormous collection she has established at her museum in Padua, the Museo del Precinema; the transportation of priceless fragile glass slides no longer being a good idea; Madame Zotti acts as lanternist herself (resplendent in a late-Victorian blue-black shot-silk evening dress, bustle and all) while a lecturer read from the stage; the Verdi had been heavily adapted to enable the lantern to display on the cinema screen, which looked fine from where I was sat, but I did wonder quite how much some people saw from their positions, what with the Verdi’s sightlines.

The show was terrific; the slides spectacular, particularly those examples where, by use of fades, daytime scenes transform to night as we watch; not to mention special slides designed to hold live insects, and live small fish, swimming across the screen … extraordinary. The stalwart of every magic lantern show I’ve ever seen seem to be the kaleidoscopic slides … here they were spellbinding; we really were getting the highlights of the collection. If there was one slight personal disappointment, it was that it was presented very much as a history lecture … which is fine as an approach, obviously; but I was hoping for a recreation of a big magic lantern show of the era, and that wasn’t quite what we saw. But what we saw was unforgettable too.

There was then a fair gap in the programme as the Verdi was turned back into its cinema format, ready for the late screening of more of the 1910’s French comedy shorts … so I took in some air, honestly meaning to take in the second half of the set which included some Max Linder … and possibly the 1hr 37m Shochiku drama Kinkanshoku (Japan 1934) (Eclipse) due to start at 11.20pm … but I failed you. I feel deeply ashamed …


No shame, please, Mysterious. I haven’t made it to a late screening at Pordenone for years now. Many thanks for an attentive and illuminating account. The report on Friday’s offerings will follow soon (hopefully with just as many eye-catching ellipses, semi-colons and classy use of words like ‘escutcheon’).

Pordenone diary 2010 – day one
Pordenone diary 2010 – day two
Pordenone diary 2010 – day three
Pordenone diary 2010 – day four
Pordenone diary 2010 – day five
Pordenone diary 2010 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2010 – day eight

5 responses

  1. I was at the festival long enough on the Thursday morning to see Blind Justice/Hævnens nat, which really was a stunning production. In its lighting, general mise en scene and handling of suspense it felt years ahead of its time. Performances likewise were controlled and acute, with the only hint of overacting curiously coming from Christensen, the director, playing Strongman John. It built up superbly to a point where you could envisage a number of ways in which the plot could satisfactorily resolve itself. And then the film did something else instead … but we won’t give away the ending – just to say, what was he thinking?

  2. Welcome back, X. Thank you for sharing with all of the readers of the Bioscope. I have to see more Scandanavian silents. I enjoyed your comments about Shingun. There are several movies out there that can be hard to watch, knowing what would happen after the movie was over.

  3. Bukhta Merti had no pretensions to greatness. But I did walk out exclaiming, “Open the Kingston valve!”, so it did a thing or two right. Equally memorable was the scene that began

    [shot of playing kittens]
    Title: Here are some cute and lovable kittens…
    Title: … and the Chief of Counter-intelligence
    [shot of Counter-intelligence chief]

    For some reason, gratuitous kittens were a recurring theme in the Soviet cinema on the programme.

    Jeremy Isaacs’ lecture was well worthwhile. I’m a silent cinema dilettante, and was very happy to learn about Hollywood‘s making and Kevin Brownlow’s wider achievements. The talk got an enthusiastic reception from the audience of hardened GCM-goers as well.

    Like you, I found the propaganda element of Shingun creepy, and the plot of the war section just too much. I disagree about the merit of the aerial sequences though — many shots clearly involved real aircraft and technical challenges; the GCM programme notes say that it was the first aerial footage in a Japanese film.

  4. Thanks for your comments here and on other 2010 Pordenone posts. It’s so useful to have other people’s memories and points of view set down for the record. What the Mysterious X and myself write are opinions only. We want to read more.

  5. Sorry for the shotgun approach… I felt a little sheepish to be commenting so long after the event.

    My previous GCM was in Sacile in 2006, and The Big Parade with Neil Brand’s accompaniment was as profound a cinema experience as I’ve ever had. Even though nothing hit me quite like that this time, it was great fun to be in Pordenone and an excellent week of film.

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