Pordenone diary 2010 – day seven

Donald Sosin rehearsing before a screening at the Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone

We’ve reached the penultimate report of the 2010 Giornate del Cinema Muto, and while I was strolling about the streets and blustery sea-front of Trieste, our anonymous reporter, known only as The Mysterious X, was on the spot at Pordenone to provide this account of the goings-on of Friday 8 October:

A quick scurry from the hotel, via the cafe for a quick espresso doppio, and to grab a bottle of mineral water for the cinema; for starting at 9.00am, we had the latest instalment from the Shochiko strand of the Giornate, Wakamono Yo Naze Naku Ka (Japan 1930) (Why Do You Cry Youngsters?).

By this stage of the Giornate we had discerned that Shochiku specialised in contemporary dramas of 30’s Japanese life, and particularly the culture clashes generated by modern western influences, seemingly largely from Hollywood, with the more traditional Japanese moral codes. And with a pacing that could be described as languid … and this film was no exception to the established trend. But intriguingly, the clash here, although along generational lines within a family, does not happen in quite the expected way. We meet the family – widowed father, son and daughter, happy and traditional in
outlook; until the father decides to remarry … his new, somewhat younger bride is a Modern Girl, with Modern Outlook and Modern Interests … a panning shot of the spines of the books she has brought to the house reveal titles of works of sexual psychology, shocking to the late teenaged children … Freudian, indeed. After episodes of increasing friction, the children flee the nest and set up house in a poorer neighbourhood, next to a family whose father is in the process of selling his pretty daughter into the sex trade.

All beautifully staged, and shot (although the picture quality is occasionally marred by print damage; not nitrate decomp I don’t think, but many of the Japanese films this week displayed the same type of damage, the effect it has is of watching a film through a sooty snowstorm) but the themes were becoming familiar; in a way these films were becoming as interesting in the anthropological sense, as we learned through the week how the dress codes worked, the significance of whether a suit or kimono was being worn to work, whether the suited man would change into kimono at home or not, which clothing denoted which level of the strict hierarchy in the Japanese sex trade, from Geisha, to dance hostess, to club
girl, to streetwalker … because representatives from the industry appeared in nearly all the films we saw. Not mentioning the curious – to western eyes of 2010 – 1930’s Japanese ideas of private and public morality. What constituted a happy or just ending in a Shochiku film seldom matched our modern Hollywood sensibilities. But, hey, we come here to learn … and the length and pacing of these films encourages the audience to think as we watch.

Mie Yamashita, who had played exceptionally beautifully to the Japanese films all week, had returned home by this point, so bravely stepping into the pit for this 3¼ hour marathon was our very own Stephen Horne, flute at hand, performing beautifully as ever, his style (and his partial use of the flute) certainly suiting Japanese silents.

Out into the noonday sun; as interested as I am in early cinema, I didn’t fancy half an hour of medical films, recording injuries, conditions and experiments in treatment, just before lunch [shame – Ed.]…

It’s been a bit of a challenge finding illustrations for this post, so I’ve given up looking for film stills and here’s a modern-day photograph of a harsh Caucasian landscape instead …

But back straight after, for Giuli (USSR/Georgia 1927) a Georgian rural drama directed by Lev Push and Nikolai Shengelaya, and set in the wild rocky Caucasus, where semi-nomadic clans survive by sheep-herding, and live with their own strict codes of behaviour, and feuds simmer deeply. Giuli is the daughter of an elderly shepherd, who promises her in marriage to the local (and equally elderly) clan chief … whereas she is in love with a more lowly, but virile, handsome etc. shepherd.

If the plot is hackneyed, and pretty much interchangeable with films about any society and at most times, this film was unmissable due to the spectacular cinematography of director-to-be Kalatazov, the use of the harsh Caucasian landscape, and the equally rocky and craggy
faces of the cast; the elderly males crevassed with wrinkles, the younger men with the most incredible aquiline profiles, spectacular moustaches and jutting chins, but with the humanity of the central performances giving heart to the film. All told a welcome antidote to the propagandistic films of the Soviet era, which personally leave me quite cold.

One of the highlights of the last few Giornates has been the series of films, discovered in Tasmania and preserved by the Australian national film archive, representing the repertoire of the Edwardian-era Corrick family’s touring cinema show, a mixture of self-made films, and those imported from Europe and the US. This latest batch – and we are promised that there is more to come – were every bit as interesting as those shown in previous years.

The programme started with the state funeral of New Zealand Premier Richard Seddon, the man who managed to keep New Zealand politically independent from Australia, and a huge figure in New Zealand’s politics. Shot by a local cameraman in the style of state funeral films everywhere, this also gave a tantalising glimpse of Edwardian Wellington as the cortege passes. Next up was what appeared to be a film recording a vaudeville stage act; Bicyclette Presentee En Liberte (1906) featured, in a proscenium setting, two gentlemen – twins, possibly – and their performing bicycle; that is, the bicycle performed while the men watched, one assumes by wires, but if so, very well hidden. There followed a short moral tale, The Waif and The Statue (UK 1907) directed by Walter Booth; a homeless starving girl is rejected at a church door; she shelters from the snow under a statue of Hope – which magically comes to life and finds her a benefactor to give her a safe home. Similar in style to some Edison films I’ve seen, the special effects are very well handled, and nicely played in a tableau-like manner … I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that this started life as a lantern-slide series. Back to France, and Chasse De Sanglier (Wild Boar Hunt) (France 1904) a seemingly heavily staged representation of hunting wild boar with dogs … Le Diner Du 9 (Dinner on the Ninth) (France 1909) was more amusing – a comedy of manners – which had the luxury of 10 minutes to develop in – where the confusion over dinner dates combined with the need to keep face, means the lead character (played by Charles Prince) ends up having three dinners that night … and in houses where the host was not expecting a guest. Nicely subtle, and not at all broad, very little that could be described as slapstick; quite sophisticated for an ’09 film comedy, possibly betraying its origins as a stage play of the era. Deux Braves Coeurs (Two Brave Men) (France 1909) was in contrast a less sophisticated mini-melodrama of civil war and self-sacrifice; following that were two similar films of a river-borne procession in Burma, filmed and distributed by Charles Urban; and Edwin S. Porter’s Life of a Cowboy (1906) which, apart from a final sequence that seemed to come from another drama entirely, was seemingly a filmed version of sketches and scenes performed by a Wild West Show of the time; if you read the posters or adverts of the shows from the era, then every little vignette – Rowdies making a greenhorn dance, Indians attacking a stagecoach, lasso tricks … all present and correct, and no interlinking plot whatsoever. Les Fleurs Animées (France 1906) was another extravaganza of hand-colouring and special effects from Pathé and the works of Segundo De Chomon; here anthropomorphic flowers take revenge on a man responsible for the destruction of a flower bed.

Festival-goers at the Posta café doing what festival-goers like to do best

The programme finished with a film not from The Corrick Collection, but a new discovery by and from a private archive in London; Those Jersey Cowpunchers (US 1911) – or rather, and unfortunately, the first reel of two – is a comedy from Nestor, one of the real Hollywood pioneer outfits, and supposedly based on their experiences in trying to make westerns; in the film, the Billiken company head west from their New Jersey studio to make use of western locations and personnel, only to find there are no real cowboys left … they are all in the movies now; they wire back to base, to send some Eastern actors to play the roles; said actors are just applying their awful ‘Indian’ make ups when reel one finishes … it may just be that we are thus cheated of a delicious satire on early Hollywood racial stereotyping … we may never know …

After a quick break, another new discovery being introduced to the World … Die Waffen der Jugend (Germany 1912), and much anticipated as this three-reel comedy was the directorial debut of Robert ‘Caligari’ Wiene; and it really didn’t disappoint; the youth of the title is a headstrong, tomboyish daughter of a middle-class father who can no longer cope with her; he packs her off to boarding school where she remains a handful; a midnight mandolin recital is one thing, but getting into a fight with a fellow inmate and drawing a clasp knife from her stocking top … is another. Eventually she makes her escape in the traditional sheet-rope manner, and wanders the streets of the local town … wherein she draws the attentions of two criminal beggars, squatting in a dingy basement. They induce her to come with them, and keep her prisoner … which is their big mistake. In a Stockholm-syndrome-in-reverse scenario, in an effort to please her, the criminals smarten themselves up, clean up the basement, and eventually when she is found by the police and reunited with Father, decide to go straight and, much to their own horror, accept a job offer from him. A delightful, energetic and downright funny film; highly accomplished for a directorial debut, and with a superb performance from Gertrud Grabner as the beggars’ teenage nemesis; if IMDb is to be believed, this was the second – and final – film of her career … the internet fails to reveal what became of her. In its small understated way, one of the films of this year’s Giornate.

Skipping a modern documentary on Kalatozov, the director of The Cranes Are Flying but also masterful silent-era cinematographer for an extended dinner break, and brace myself for the evening events; the prizegivings, and sponsors speeches, before the spectacle that is Doug Fairbanks’ Robin Hood. The speeches from the sponsors and local dignitaries were succinct, and made welcome noises about their continued support, financial and moral, for the continuance of the Giornate; times are harder in Italy than in some other countries, and events on the level of Pordenone and Bologna do not come cheaply; I trust these people do actually realise how much they are doing for film culture in Europe and the World, and how grateful we are that they continue to support the events. Inevitably, given the brevity of the above, the presentation of the Prix Jean Mitry did drag on a bit; a shame as the recipients, André Gaudreault and Riccardo Redi are deserved recipients, and made good speeches; it was their introductions to the audience by the presenters that were overlong, and not entirely necessary; surely a written tribute and career overview could have been printed in the catalogue instead? A quick presentation to the Haghefilm/Selznick School Fellowship recipient Karin Carlson, was followed by the two films she had restored; two 1910 Essanay one-reel comedies, Mulcahy’s Raid and A College Chicken; both sprightly films, surviving in excellent picture quality if possibly missing some frames, Mulcahy’s Raid is the tale of a stereotypical Irish American cop enlisting passing actors to round up an illegal gambling den; A College Chicken was the tale of a stolen chicken passing through various hands before ending up as a contraband dorm feast at a co-ed private school. A little amuse-bouche for the main course to follow.

Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922)

Robin Hood (USA 1922); starring Douglas Fairbanks. On paper, what could possibly be a greater combination of star and vehicle? And yet … it doesn’t quite live up to its potential. It’s beautifully shot, the grandeur of the sets is stunning, the stunts are phenomenal, Doug is Doug .. .but we do have to wade through some stodge to get to the meat. It’s a full hour before we reach Sherwood Forest; the Merry Men are in place, there is none of the delineations of their characters that we get in the Errol Flynn version … but a load of exposition on how much King Richard and Maid Marian are in love with Robin Hood … honestly, sections could be retitled as a bisexual love triangle. Which would make an interesting film, but it was not what we were as an audience turning up for, in 2010 any more than 1922.

Even the spectacular sets were underutilised; is it me being fanciful speculating that the makers of the later Flynn version saw the former version’s immense spiral staircase and wondered why a duel wasn’t being fought there? The Rathbone/Flynn duel was iconic, the set for it was built in ’22 … but with no fight. If it sounds like I’m criticising a 1922 film for not being a 1938 film, perhaps you’re right; but I do find it surprising that Doug Fairbanks, of all people, could lose sight of what made his earlier films so captivating and so popular, and blow the opportunity the subject afforded. At 2¼ hours, the film is 45 minutes too long, and while in ’22 there could be an excuse for thinking longer = better, it needed someone taking Fairbanks aside – and it must have been him making the artistic decisions – and suggesting heavy cuts. Fairbanks did, I think, learn the lesson … his later adventures are far more taut and packed with action … but the definitive telling of the tale, using lessons learnt from the ’22 film, would be in three-strip
Technicolor and not tinted and toned.

The final show, more French clowns, letters O-S – yes, they were being shown alphabetically by character name all week – started
around an hour after the scheduled time, around ten to midnight; sadly, this was also the showcase for the aspirants from the Piano
Masterclasses that had been running all week. Obviously this was not deliberate, but neither was it fair … I believe some thought has to be
given to avoiding a future repetition, as it was simply too late in the day for most of the potential audience. I know it was for me.

Thanks once again, Mysterious. Some food for thought there. I did actually return from Trieste for the Corrick film show because it included one (not two as billed) of Charles Urban’s films of Burma from 1903, part of a series of films shot by H.M. Lomas for Urban none of which was known to survive before now. Unfortunately it hasn’t proved possible as yet to match the film (which shows a succession of richly-decorated boats, some of them bearing Western tourists, being rowed along a wide river) to any title from the Urban catalogue.

The final day’s report will follow soon.

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 six
Pordenone diary 2010 – day eight

One response

  1. Thanks again, X. It’s very sad about the missing reel in the Nestor comedy. Your comments about “Robin Hood” are on the money. The makers of the Errol Flynn version must have learned from its mistakes. Speaking of underutilizing the sets, I’m sorry Chaplin did not get to film his idea of the drawbridge coming down, Charlie walking out, putting out the cat, and picking up the newspaper. That would have been a good use of the set.

%d bloggers like this: