Verdi theatre, Pordenone, with book fair in the background
And so we come to our final report on the 2010 Pordenone silent film festival. The Bioscope’s editor was on the plane home by this point, but happily our cub reporter The Mysterious X was on the spot to brings this account of day eight’s offering (Saturday, October 9th).
The final day; always a source of mixed feelings. On the one hand, that end-of-a-holiday sensation, saying goodbye to friends both Italian and international that we may not see for another year; on the other that the next day represents a return to normality, the chance of a proper breakfast, your own comfy bed, and more than five hours sleep per night.
But a change of venue this morning – The Verdi being prepared, and the orchestra rehearsed, for the evening show – and we all take the pleasant stroll up the Via Garibaldi to Cinemazero, Pordenone’s arthouse cinema, for the morning. Smaller, more modern, just about enough room for the audience numbers, plenty of legroom if you do get a seat. No pianos this year; we have a morning of silents in their sound versions.
Starting with Daigaku No Wakadama (Young Master at University) (Japan 1933); the notes don’t reveal whether the synchronised music score is from a later reissue print or whether we are already in a transitional period in Japanese terms. The film itself seems transitional though; as in the other Shochiku films we’ve seen this week, there is a tangible sense of a nation sat on the cusp between tradition and modernity, East and West … and not entirely comfortably. The Young Master of the title is a star player of the university rugby team; so we’re western and modern right away; except the rugby club is run along the lines of an officers’ mess in Victorian India; arcane rules of behaviour, regimented discipline, strictly hierarchical … so we’re ripped out of that feeling immediately. The Young Master is also heir to his father’s wholesalery, run on ultra-traditional lines; Father does not approve of rugby, is unsure of the benefits of university versus commercial experience, while the Young Master is not overkeen on inheriting such a rigid existence quite yet; he is, within the constraints of his environment, a practical joker and an apprentice playboy. In such a spirit, he invites young Hoshichuyo, an apprentice Geisha in love with his father’s clerk, to watch a training session incognito … but she is recognised when his sister arrives, goes into hiding in his changing room locker, whereupon she is discovered. She is banished … and so is he, from the rugby club. Further complications ensue (the clerk is betrothed to the sister, and so on) which need to be sorted out before The Young Master can be reinstated in time to play in The Big Game.
So it has the structure of a farce comedy, but is (I assumed anyway) a breezy romantic drama more than a laughfest; it did have comical moments, particularly during the climactic game when we see the legs of a downed player whip out of frame, as he is unceremoniously dragged off while the scrum is being set … it’s possible the political manoeuverings of the rugby club leaders were intended as satirical comedy, if it didn’t register as such with me. It was certainly more light-hearted than other examples we had seen this week, and a good start to the day. Incidentally, the film also featured a nicely anachronistic piece of set-dressing; in the apartment of one of the characters, I think that of the clerk, were a couple of Hollywood talkie posters; a French-language one-sheet for All Quiet on The Western Front, and another for an early Cary Grant film, The Eagle and the Hawk. So, if anyone ever asks you if Cary Grant was ever in a silent film, you can now respond “Only in Japan” …
Moana, from MoMA
The second offering I wasn’t planning on seeing; and as it was getting lively in the Cinemazero I decided to catch five minutes while standing at the edge, before getting some sunshine. Robert Flaherty’s Moana (USA 1926) was being presented with a soundtrack compiled in the ’80’s by Robert’s daughter Monica, who had been in Samoa as a very young girl during the filming; she had taken great pains in recording the sounds of Samoa, and recreating the speech of the on-screen participants, fifty years after the event; the ethics, the anthropological niceties of these efforts I’ll leave to others better qualified, but I can see why she would have wanted to make one of her father’s less well known projects more approachable for modern audiences. This was also being presented as a work-in-progress; I understand no viewable film print exists of this project at the moment; that is, however, the plan; we were watching a DVD being played off a laptop. I understand that this all went horribly wrong for a while after I exited … the feedback I got was not overwhelmingly positive on a number of points.
Back in again for the final film from the Shochiku strand: Tokyo No Eiyu (A Hero Of Tokyo) (Japan 1935), and again, a transitional dialogue-free film with a musical soundtrack. Directed by Shimizu, as were many of the films shown on the first days of the festival, this reverted to the template of a dark, tragedic exploration of the moral codes and hierarchies within Japanese society of the thirties. We meet a widowed businessman with a young son; feeling that he cannot devote enough time to his upbringing he remarries (for convenience, it seems) a widowed mother of two other children. After some initial sibling friction is played out, Father does a bunk; his business was selling shares in dodgy stocks, and he’d been found out. This leaves the mother with no income and no means to support herself, her two children plus this new stepson; she does what a woman has to do in a Shochiku film; she joins the sex trade, surreptitiously, unknown by all her family …
Fast forward fifteen years or so; her daughter is on the point of marrying into a ‘good’ family; they enquire into the family history, and the truth emerges. As does the father, up to his old tricks … at which point SHE feels the need to apologise to HIM for the shame …
At least in this film the outrage of the director towards the status quo is made obvious to a modern audience; this is a sharper critique than the preceding, far longer, films: more pointed, and to the point. The performances, of Mitsuko Yoshikawa as the woman trodden down by the societal rules, debasing herself to keep her family together; and of Yukichi Iwata as the bewildered, then angry son, are superb. While I wouldn’t recommend this film to anyone in terms of entertainment, it
was for me the best of this strand. The bad news is, I’m told, that nearly all of the extant Japanese silents have been shown at Pordenone now; unless there are new discoveries … that’s our lot.
Privideniye, Kotoroye ne Vozvrashchayetsya (The Ghost that Never Returns), from blog.nova-cinema.org
Back down the Via Garibaldi to the Posta for lunch … creature of habit that I am … before the afternoon’s offering, Abram Room’s Privideniye, Kotoroye ne Vozvrashchayetsya (The Ghost that Never Returns) (USSR 1930). It’s a stunning film, a tour de force combination of avant garde elements within an adventure film format – with a more than a dash of revolutionary propaganda, naturally. Our hero is a political prisoner in an unnamed South American country. Sentenced to vegetate in a semi-surrealist prison, a message is got to him that a strike is being planned in the oilfields by his colleagues on the outside; meanwhile his once-a-decade one day’s parole is imminent; the catch is that if the parole’s rules are broken, an armed guard is handily placed to execute summary justice. It becomes a series of battles of wits; between the prison authorities and the prisoner, then individually between the prisoner and his guard, as he jumps a train and treks across a desert wasteland towards home, the oilfields … and freedom ??? It’s utterly unlike any other Soviet film I’ve seen … aside from its politics … it has elements of the Soviet avant garde, but equally hints of Expressionism and Hollywood … a really interesting blend of styles that suited its subject matter, and made it more persuasive than most Soviet propaganda, I would imagine. Certainly more entertaining …
The final presentation of the French Clowns followed; Tartinette to Zizi … I saw a couple, not impressed again, to be honest … a lot of work must have been put into researching these films, and getting the prints here … but the presentation of them in large chunks in alphabetical order chased away all but the most ardent devotee … and lost the films the opportunity of making new converts. A great shame.
So out to the Posta for one last appointment with a Spritz Aperol, to find that the usually milling Saturday evening crowd had been augmented by people admiring a vintage car display, half a dozen beautifully restored thirties vehicles lined up, and, for a fortunate few, giving little joyrides around the town. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much joy on one man’s face as when Phil Carli returned from his …
Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers and Clara Bow in Wings (1927), from http://www.nytimes.com
And so to the finale, perhaps even a climax; the full live orchestral presentation of William Wellman’s Wings (USA 1927), featuring the Photoplay print, and the Orchestra Mitteleuropea conducted by Mark Fitz-Gerald playing the Carl Davis score. It’s one of his finest, I think, that great March as the main theme, some nice leitmotifs reappearing throughout as appropriate … very effective.
And, what with all the sound effects of the battle sequences having to come from the orchestra, I would imagine a nightmare to play. Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, they nailed it. It’s a powerful film – not just the legendary flying sequences, or the breathtaking battlefront climax … but the subtle underplaying of emotions, too … sometimes Clara and Buddy go slightly over but Arlen, and particularly Henry B. Walthall convey the suppressed emotion just beneath the surface to great effect.
But it is famous for those war sequences, and deservedly so; on the big screen you get to see so much more of it; on a small screen you don’t see the aircraft growing from the smallest dot to ambush the pontoon bridge, or the staff car … you don’t quite see the battlefield extending right to the horizons … and you’re involved, you’re in the air, or in the mud, with them. And did the shot of the white crosses covering the whole landscape inform the similar shot in Attenborough’s Oh! What A Lovely War? I would just hesitate from calling it the perfect WW1 film; for that we would need a little more Gary Cooper, a little less El Brendel, a good deal fewer animated bubbles in Paris … with the latter, a nice idea that was way overused … actually, that applies to El too. And I struggle to quite see how anyone with Clara living next door would pursue the rather more watery charms of Jobyna Ralston. However much an advantage being from The City conferred. But this is nitpicking; you sit back, let the film and the orchestra take you to a time past; either WWI, or the days in the twenties when such presentations were daily occurrences in the larger cities … it was a terrific way to end the Giornate of 2010.
The Verdi at night
Was it a classic year? Not quite, I feel, though there were, as always, cinematic experiences to cherish, lessons to learn, doors opened to unsuspected areas of interest; films that would surprise, or delight, or shock, but seldom leave without further thought. And certainly films that you will be unlikely to have a second chance of seeing, as here, as they were designed to be seen.
I’m very aware that I haven’t mentioned many of the musicians’ performances; this was entirely down to a happy event chez Sosin (many congratulations, Donald and Joanna) which meant that after his (superb) show with Jean Darling on the Wednesday he hotfooted it back home, and the remainder of the Giornate stalwarts shared out the films between them – and naturally, I failed to take notes as to who ended up playing for which film. Needless to say Messrs Brand, Buchwald, Carli, Horne, and Sweeney were all playing at the top of their game despite there being some challenging films in the programme. The Book Fair was much reduced, perched on the third floor of The Verdi, but I got hold of the one DVD I was after (Cento Anni Fa, the Bologna-compiled set of Suffragette films) so I was happy.
The social side, of course, was as good as ever, new friendships made, old friendships renewed; the Giornate staff and volunteers helpful and patient, the locals as welcoming and understanding (and as amused by our attempts at Italian ) as ever, the food and drink … I look forward to what goodies are to be pulled from the bag for us next year, the 30th renewal of the World’s most important silent film festival. I hope to see you there …
Huge thanks once again to The Mysterious X, who has donned the domino, cast a cloak about their person, and slipped away mysteriously as ever into the inky dark night. I would concur with X’s assessment of the festival – not quite a classic, but funding constraints had their effect upon the programme. We missed the variety that would have been there with another strand of programming (such as the Leo McCarey shorts which were promised early on); with just the one screen available, maybe the Japanese films (some of which were very long) took up a bit too much space. But that’s only by comparison with earlier festivals. The riches on offer were real riches, and there were major discoveries every day. I was particularly encouraged by the new faces I saw the festival – students from Italy and the USA especially – which suggests that the festival is not just showing the same films to the same crowd but continues to reach out to those who need to discover silents for the first time. Tell that to your funders, guys – you are doing the right things.
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 seven