Pordenone diary 2011 – day two

The top of the Teatro Verdi, Pordenone

Domenica. Dawn. The sun is already beating down warmly as we head out after breakfast for a long’s day’s viewing. It may be like high summer outside, but we are scheduled to spent most of it in a darkened theatre, absorbed in the extraordinarily various worlds of silent cinema revealed in day two of the Giornate del Cinema Muto. So let the adventure begin.

Some years ago the festival put on a notable programme of silent Walt Disney films, starting with the Alice comedies. In 2011 we go back further, to Uncle Walt’s first-ever films, the Laugh-o-Grams series. In 1920 Disney was a 19-year-old commercial artist working for an advertising company in Kansas City. He approached a local exhibitor, Frank Newman, with the idea of producing a cartoon filler for Newman’s cinema chain. This first film, Newman Laugh-o-Gram (USA 1921), is a rudimentary but spirited local newsreel, starting with live film of Disney himself at his desk, then turning to comic comments on local issues (crime, fashions, the state of the roads), done as lightning sketches except for a final item when there is genuine animation – one of the few examples in his entire oeuvre done by Disney alone. The Laugh-o-Gram series would continue for another two years, but Disney shifted from newsreel to modernised fables, and these are what we are to see throughout the Giornate.

Next up, The Race to the Pole. The Giornate’s Antarctic exploration strand is to give us two programmes of short films and two documentary features over the week, covering Man’s urgent quest to explore Antarctica and to become the first to reach the South Pole. I am reminded of Raymond Durgnat’s withering four-word assessment of the 1953 documentary The Conquest of Everest – “as if it mattered”. Well, of course it didn’t really matter, and despite much insistence (some of it sincere) that they were heading south for the best of scientific purposes, so much of this activity was vaingorious, driven by national pride and a quest for personal glory by some of exploration’s most stubborn – but also most interesting – men.

We will be seeing the two most stubborn and most interesting of them all, Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton, later in the week. This morning we have a collection of shorts which shows just how much polar activity there was worldwide, and how popular films were of such expeditions (the films often having been made in the hope that their commercial success would help offset expedition expenses). First up is The Scottish Antarctic Expedition (GB 1902-04), briefly documenting William Spiers Bruce’s scrupulously scientific expedition to Antarctica. Bruce captured ice floating by and a penguin rookery before his camera jammed – just enough to give us two emblematic shots which will now recur in all the other Antarctic films we are to see.

Ernest Shackleton appears, albeit only as a dot on the horizon, in Depature of the British Antarctic Expedition from Lyttleton N.Z. 1st Jan. 1908 (New Zealand 1908). This newsreel shows Shackleton’s ship Nimrod sailing south, waved goodbye by excited crowds and followed by a flotilla of ships. Shackleton would get to within 97 miles of the Pole before being forced to return.

Sledging into the distance, from Roald Amundsens Sydpolsferd 1910-12

The explorer who first made it furthest south was of course Roald Amundsen. Thanks to its recent DVD release and recognition by UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, Roald Amundsens Sydpolsferd 1910-12 (Roald Amundsen’s South Pole Expedition) (Norway 1912) has become not only familiar but iconic, after years when the only familiar Anatarctic exploration images were those taken of Scott and Shackleton. Filmed by Amundsen himself and Kristan Prestrud, the sixteen-minute film does not reached the aesthetic heights achieved by Herbert Ponting (for Scott) or Frank Hurley (for Shackleton), but its matter-of-factness echoes the clear-headed, sensible – and of course successful – approach undertaken by the Norwegians. On two occasions the images haunt us – where a silhouetted Norwegian with pipe comically confronts an emperor penguin, and towards the end when their sledges pulled by dogs disappear into the white dstance, heading away from us as they move to the top of the frame and the camera remains fixed.

However, though the print was poor, the film of the programme for me is Nihon Nankyoku Tanken (Japan 1912). It was crowded in Antarctica around 1910-1912. There were expeditions from Britain, Australian, Norway and Japan. The latter, led by Lieutenant Nobu Shirase mostly explored the coastal areas and did not make any attempt on the Pole, but they were excitedly acclaimed as heroes on their return, and the film is constructed as a paean to noble endeavour, with a strong nationalist tone, glorifying what were really relatively humble achievements. “Japan has left its imprint on the Antarctic continent”, it boasts. It is also interesting for the opening scenes where we are shown the equipment, and then each of the members of the expedition, with their names. No other polar exploration film of the period does this, amazingly enough, given the huge human interest in such adventures. It even names the ship’s accountant. The footage on the ice, shot by Yasunao Taizumi, is not particularly impressively, but fascinatingly the catalogue notes by leading polar film authority Jan Anders Diesen reveal that some of the footage, showing four men pulling a sledge and pitching a tent, does not feature the type of sledge used by Shirase’s expedition. There is a possibility that these shots could come from the otherwise lost film of Shackleton’s 1907-09 Nimrod expedition, which was being sold by Gaumont in 1909. It would be wonderful if this could be confirmed.

A newsreel follows, Pathé’s Animated Gazette no. 140 (UK 1911) which has a brief item of the dogs used in Douglas Mawson’s expedition, included among such delightful newsreel mundanities as ship launches, parades, and Kingston regatta. Mawson, who led Australian’s Antarctic expedition (previously described on the Bioscope), took with him the photographer Frank Hurley, who was still learning his craft as a polar filmmaker and would go on to greater things working with Ernest Shackleton. Nevertheless, the two sequences from Mawson’s surviving films, shown as [The Film of the Mawson Australasian Expedition] (Australia 1911-12), demonstrate great skill and enterprise from Hurley, particularly in a sequence where the explorers venture out into a fierce wind yet Hurley’s camera remains steady throughout, his sense of composition acute. Mawson’s films were presented in lecture format over 1914-16 and lecture scripts survive. The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia are reconstructing the films in their lecture format, and we see the films intercut with slides (which do indeed slide in an out as they would have been shown at the time) and commentary (recorded by Quentin Tournor) and no music. It is instrutive and effective, and there needs to be more of this sort of archaeological reconstruction of the lecture films of the period, because some of the most popular ‘films’ of our period were actually multimedia amalgamations – films, slides, music, commentary – in a form which we could say was more televisual than cinematic. Neil Brand and I had a stab at it recreating part of With Allenby in Egypt and Lawrence in Arabia (1919), but the Mawson’s scripts seem to have the crucial details of what film clip and what slide goes where. And so do any other such lecture film scripts survive?

Anyway, the polar film programme part 1 has been excellent, and it is interesting to see it watched by a full and attentive audience. Only a few years ago a programme of non-fiction films might be guaranteed to empty the Verdi, but good programming and supporting information is paying off.

Betty Amman in Asphalt, from http://www.film-daily.com

The Giornate’s Canon Revisited strand brings back classics for re-evaluation. There are times when the majority of us are left scratching our heads because we have not heard of said classics, it being a long time since we last read The Film Till Now. But we have all heard of Joe May’s Asphalt (Germany 1929) and we sit back in expectation of a treat. And we are not disappointed. It is as classic as they come. It sets up the city street setting with polished skill, gradually leading us into the life of a young traffic policeman with doting parents who captures a woman jewel thief only to be seduced by her. Her lover then returns, the young man kills him by accident in a fight, but (somewhat improbably) he avoids imprisonment when she turns honest for the first time and says that the killing was self-defence, and that she is guilty of the jewel theft. But the story is not the point – it is the truthfulness to the way people act out their lives before one another, the truthfulness of the policeman’s spoken and unspoken understanding of things in the scenes with his parents. It is a film that finds out all the shades of grey between good and bad. An exceptional film, given an appropriately nuanced piano accompaniment by Gabriel Thibaudeau which was much applauded.

And then it is back to Georgia for Mzago da Gela (Georgia SSR 1934, though made in 1930), another film directed by Lev Push, this time in collaboration with Shalva Khuskivadze. This shows the remote Khevsur people, whose exotic mountainside lives are interrupted by visting tourists who bring with them a magical invention, radio. A young couple, recently married, react differently to this insight into modernity. She leaves for the big city of Tiblisi; he stays behind and broods, before going to look for her. The scenes of the two of them in traditional costume wandering lost through the modern town with everyone staring at them turn the film from drama into documentary. Then, alas, the propaganda takes over, because they have to be seen to both embrace the forward-looking Soviet Union, so she runs a dairy and he becomes a radio engineer. A free film would have been able to explore the tensions between the traditional and the modern with greater richness.

Goodness, it is only midday. We break for lunch, rejoicing in the warmth, then return for two Italian dramas. Il Veleno delle Parole (Italy 1913) is a tale of slander and innocence, quite competently done, but La Serpe (Italy 1920) is an over-wrought bore, with Francesca Bertini putting on the diva mannerisms when that style of performance was some years out of date. Italian films sadly lost their way in the 1920s; they try so hard and achieve so little.

The Giornate has been encouraging local schools to contribute music scores to silents and then perform them to us, so we get American comedies with recorders, percussion, sound effects and the teacher playing the piano and it all works rather well. Disney’s Oh Teacher! (USA 1927), featuring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was nicely done, and Buster Keaton’s The Electric House (USA 1922) was fun, once they’d got the DVD working (a really indistinct image, alas). It’s a curious film, not quite understanding what this new phenomenon of electricity is (by mistake Buster gets to wire up someone’s home electrically and all of the gadgets go haywire when a real electrical engineer takes his revenge), not sufficiently consistent in the gags it draws from the situation.

Then we get SpilimBrass, a five-piece brass ensemble playing to Chalie Chaplin’s The Adventurer (USA 1917) and Easy Street (USA 1917). They are excellent – spiritied, witty, and perfectly attuned to the needs of the films. The Adventurer must be the perfect comedy; Easy Street is not so funny (what film so honest about violence, poverty and degradation could be?) but it packs in more human observation in twenty minutes than some social historians have achieved in a lifetime.

We decide to forgo a modern documentary on Hungarian cinema and stumble out into the early evening for supper. The third and final screening session of this long day begins at 8.30, and the Verdi is full as everyone eagerly awaits the headline attraction. Firstly we get another Disney Laugh-o-Gram, Little Red Riding Hood (USA 19220, a rudimentary but nevertheless delightful modernisation of the fairy tale. There are quite a lot of repeated actions and other such animation short-cuts, but we can see Walt and his team learning their craft and enjoying doing so. A Hole in the Bucket (USA 2010) is one of the modern silent shorts that the Giornate generously finds space for, though the results tend to be mixed. American film student Rex Harsin has developed a Chaplin-like character he calls Purdie. Alas he does not have Chaplin’s years of experience on the variety stage before he ever stepped in front of a camera. No one laughs.

The Better Man (USA 1912) is a routine Vitagraph Western, most interesting for being one of the horde of American films repatriated from New Zealand and for having the money for its restoration provided by the For the Love of Film blogathon, which gets a welcome mention in the credits.

Clara Bow says come hither, in Mantrap

And then the crowd get what they having been looking forward to all day, Mantrap (USA 1926), starring Clara Blow. It is being shown as part of the Treasures of the West strand, marking the recent 5-DVD set release of films on Western themes by the National Film Preservation Foundation. Mantrap is probably Clara Bow’s best film, despite the silly story and unlikely setting (she marries dull hulk Ernest Torrence and joins in the Canadian wilderness with no one to talk to except Percy Marmont). The camera loves her, and she loves the camera, never more so than for the iconic shot where she beckons Marmont (and by implication all of us watching) with her curled finger. It’s not much of a film, to be honest; a good cast is given too little to do, wisecracking intertitles becomes wearisome after a while, and its teasing attempt at challenging conventional morality when Clara cheerfully ditches her husband for Marmont is squashed when she returns to Torrence as the dutiful wife, after a breezy spell in Minneapolis. It could have been a proto-feminist film, but it’s Victor Fleming directing, and it isn’t.

The parting of the Red Sea in Die Sklavenkönigin, a screengrab from Nitrateville

Phew, it’s been a long day. Nineteen films, three of them features, and now here’s a fourth to round off the day. Another strand at the Giornate is Before Curtiz, the films the great Michael Curtiz made before he went to Hollywood, when he was Mihály Kertész from Hungary. I’ve long wanted to see Die Sklavenkönigin (Moon of Israel) (Austria 1924), not least for its British connection since it was part-funded by British company Stoll Film Studios, with H. Rider Haggard writing the intertitles for what was an adaptation of his novel Moon of Israel. Alas, the old saying ‘A Stoll film is a dull film’ never rang truer. It’s a tale of the Israelites in slavery in Egypt being led to freedom by Moses, though the lead figure is an Israelite slave girl with Mosaic-like authority who falls in love with an Egyptian prince.

Because it says so in the film histories then I have to accept it must be partially true, but I really do find it hard to credit that Maria Corda was ever popular. Plain, heavily-built, and as lacking in star quality as she is in any acting ability, she kills the film stone dead. Yet it apparently was designed as a star vehicle on acount of her great popularity with German and Austrian auiences following the films she had made with husband Alexander Korda. Her co-star, the Chilean Adelqui Millar, is no less wooden, though having seen the ludicrous hairstyle devised for him by the wardrobe department, perhaps he just gave up from the start and was merely grateful for the cheque at the end of it. There is some interest in how the Jews are presented not entirely sympathetically, with their tendency to violence contrasting with the gentle Egyptian prince who becomes Pharoah, and the parting of the Red Sea is genuinely impressive – achieved, the catalogue tells us, “by combining double exposure of the negative with an ingenious mechanical device that launched 50 cubic metres of water over a scale model”. In the end Corda has to die to avoid the a-historical embarassment of a Jew married to an Egyptian pharoah. A film more endured than enjoyed.

It’s been a long day; it’s been a long post. Look out for the report from day three, when we shall encounter an underground printing press, bourgeois Japanese insects, a kiss on the roof of the Alhambra, and the woman who painted a famous red flag.

Pordenone diary 2011 – day one
Pordenone diary 2011 – day three
Pordenone diary 2011 – day four
Pordenone diary 2011 – day five
Pordenone diary 2011 – day six
Pordenone diary 2011 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2011 – day eight

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