Pordenone diary 2011 – day five

The Film Fair at the Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone

I left for home at the start of the fifth day of the Giornate del Cinema Muto, but happily Bioscope coverage of the rest of the silent film festival was ensured by our regular co-reporter on these occasions, the Mysterious X. Despite our pleas, X prefers to stay anonymous, but though X may be hidden in the shadows, they are – I think you will agree – as observant and informative as always. Take it away, mysterious one …


In at 9.00 am – that’s my strategy, start early and watch ’til I drop – for Das Spreewaldmädel (The Girl From The Spree Woods) from the long-term Steinhoff Project, bringing Hans Steinhoff’s silent work back from obscurity. This year’s instalment was a rather delightful rural comedy, about a farmer’s fiancée being distracted by a handsome young officer billetted with them in 1910s Germany. It did suffer from mid-film longeuers, but elsewhere, and in the final sequences in particular, with the farmer rushing through the wedding ceremony before the expected arrival of the Officer, the action was slickly handled, and with a light comic touch. I found it fascinating, but not entirely surprising, that Germany too in the 1920s had a pre-lapsarian view of pre-war rural life, just as was reflected in British culture of the time, and since.

The second Corrick Collection programme was preceded by a rerun of The Soldier’s Courtship (UK 1896) and then started with a fine series of Niagara Falls travelogue shorts from 1906. Le Piege A Loup (The Wolf Trap) (France 1906) was a comedy featuring a man caught in a wolf (think bear) trap while his son, supposedly summoning help, plays with his friends instead.San Francisco and San Francisco Disaster (USA 1906) were two actuality films effectively acting as before-and-after scenes of the earthquake-hit city. Still dramatic and thought provoking after all this time. Great Steeple-Chase (France 1905) seems to be a rather fine film record of the 1905 running of the Grande Steeple-Chase de Paris, at Auteuil Hippodrome. Using a framing device of a family attending the racing, seeing (through a binocular-shaped camera mask) and being seen, thus making the social status of the event obvious. They place a bet at the Pari-Mutuel (French Tote) windows before watching the race and awaiting the posting of the result. The race coverage itself is of excellent technical quality – I lost count of the number of different camera positions used, stationed at the more spectacular jumps at the eye-level of the spectators, and right on the edge of the course; indeed a nasty- looking multiple fall threatens the camera at one point, the camera continues to film as the horses regain their feet and continue, remounted. The immediacy is striking, as is its modernity. I have not seen better film footage of horseracing prior to the 1980s. A real document.

The Watermelon Patch (USA 1905) – as seen a couple of years previously in a different context – remains controversial, and uncomfortable viewing. Yes, it does feature pioneering editing techniques, and a delicious sequence of celebratory dancing from the black cast – but otherwise it’s a compendium of racial slurs and stereotypes, so while it can be filed under “Historically Interesting” I don’t particularly want to see it a third time. La Course a la Perroque (The Wig Hunt) (France 1906) is the sister film to Le Coup De Vent seen in the first programme; in that, the chase is that of a man after his hat; in this, an old woman (well, a man in drag) is trying to retrieve his/her wig after boys have attached balloons to it.

Jeux Olympiques d’Athènes (Fr 1906) was coverage from the 1906 non-canonical event, on the tenth anniversary of the revival of the Olympic Games. The film is disappointingly ambivalent as to whether we are watching actual competition or display events for the opening ceremony; it may be a mix of both, of course; the film is framed by the arrival and departure of the Greek royal family; there is a display of mass gymnastics as seen in most opening ceremonies; but the high hurdles race looked competitive enough, as did the tug of war. Which leaves us to wonder; were there medals awarded in 1906 for Synchronised Penny-Farthing Riding? Six gentleman, in a pseudo-military team uniform, conducting a routine reminiscent of the Horse Artillery at the Royal Tattoo. Or Busby Berkely. It was their total dignity that made it hilarious … call Lord Coe, it may not be too late for next year …

Voleurs de Bijoux Mystifés (Jewel Robbers Mystified) (France 1905) was a nice semi-comic crime film, with a jewel theft going wrong and unofficial retribution being meted out. As an added bonus a close-up of the opened jewel box is hand coloured for extra spectacle. [Travel Scenes] and [Procession of Boats on River, Burma?] (UK c.1905) are tentatively-identified as Charles Urban films of river events in the Far East. Views of The Empire in full swing are always interesting, if uncomfortable viewing; here Europeans on a palatial pontoon are towed along a major river by a giant catamaran powered by dozens of natives. (Procession of Boats on River., Burma was shown as part of last year’s Pordenone Corrick programme – ed.)

Ohé! Ohé! Remouler (Hey, Hey, Grinder) (France 1906) was another French chase comedy, but a bit different and rather fun. A housewife wants her rather large carving knife sharpened by a passing travelling knifegrinder; her neighbours misinterpret her shouting and knifewaving as something more sinister, and try to chase her down and disarm her before she kills someone … Finally, La Fée aux Fleurs (The Flower Fairy) (France 1905) was a particularly good example of the coloured-flowers-and -pretty-girls-tableaux genre so popular at this date … Segundo Chomón for Pathé in this case.

Henny Porten in Hintertreppe (Germany 1921), from MOMA.org

But enough of this fun and beauty; time for Hintertreppe (Backstairs) (Germany 1921), part of The Canon Revisited. An expressionist take on intimate drama, Henny Porten stars in (and produced) this vehicle designed to broaden her career into Art and out of the typecasting she was already subject to. She plays an ordinary housemaid embarking on an affair while being obsessed over by the local postman. The lover disappears; she writes, gets no reply – apparently, according to the catalogue notes, the postman had intercepted her outgoing post, though that was not obvious onscreen. When eventually she despairs, the postman forges loving replies, which surely makes no sense, but hey … it doesn’t end well for anyone, which may be no surprise, and the film was no success either. Henny went back to her lucrative and popular Hausfrau roles and left Expressionism to the cast and crew – Kortner, Leni and Mayer. Frankly, I can’t blame her; it must have been as much fun to play as it was to watch, and she was essentially paying the bills. Incidentally, this was restored from an English print, with added intertitles for plot clarification (which didn’t help much) and possibly the most condescending introduction in silent film history; “Remember, these people are not like us; their bodies are adult but their emotions and behaviour are as those of children” or words to that effect.

After lunch, more from Soviet Russia’s FEKS studio group, and S.V.D. – Soyuz Veligovo Dela (The Club of the Great Deed) (USSR 1927), a costume drama celebrating the 1820s Decembrist uprising fomented by a cadre of young army officers. A story of idealism, betrayal and mystery, it was highly atmospheric with large sequences set in blizzard-whipped forests at night, gambling dens and circuses. Far more accessible than The Overcoat, possibly because the expressionism had been turned down a couple of notches, and what remained worked with, rather than against, the tale it was telling.

Eric Lange (left) and Serge Bromberg (with David Robinson between them) introducing La Voyage dans la lune on day four

Over to the smaller, and therefore packed Auditorium Regionale while the night’s orchestra rehearsed in the Verdi, for this year’s Jonathan Dennis Lecture, presented by Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange of Lobster Films, on the subject of the Voyage dans la lune restoration.

Serge is a natural showman, always engaging and witty, but for once Eric emerged from his self-imposed (relative) silence; he speaks English! He too has a great sense of humour! Needless to say, the documentary Lobster are making on the restoration will not be entirely serious in tone – it was used as a source of illustrative material for the lecture, it is not yet finished – and Serge and Eric took us through the painstaking process of rescuing this unique print from the brink of death, and the ethical/philosophical choices made regarding the balance between restoration and recreation in that rescue. And also best guesses as to how the print came into being; on Edison format so prior to 1905/6; made for the Spanish market (not just that it turned up in the Catalunya Archive, but it had been given a Spanish rather than French tricolor); but the quality of the hand colouring suggests that it could only have been achieved at a top-quality French atelier, made for export. A fascinating hour-and-a-half, and I look forward to the documentary/film package when it is finished and released.

The evening show will be long remembered; the longest queue in Giornate history I suspect, trailing all the way back to the Banco Friuladria on the other side of the town square, and which must have started forming a good hour before the doors opening time. The event was ticket only, but with unallocated seating, and standing room only at that. I know the logistics are tricky, and that Mr Urbanora has expressed his opinion on allocated seating, but there has to be a better way … So, who was the queue honouring? That chap with the bowler and cane, still packing ’em in, 90 years on.

So, no pressure then on the 21st Century silent that preceded it (the rediscovered 60 seconds of Greta Garbo kissing an unimpressed-looking Lars Hanson in The Divine Woman (USA 1928) looked after itself) … We had sat through a couple of 21st Century Silents earlier in the week; both had a couple of nice ideas in them, and they were competently filmed, but I’m thinking of drafting legislation along the lines that, unless you’ve spent your years since childhood honing your physical comedy skills onstage, you will not be allowed to homage/imitate/try to be Chaplin or Keaton in front of a video camera on pain of death. And it’s cruel to the filmmakers too … you could see the silent tumbleweed rolling across the Verdi stage …

Fortunately, in a masterpiece of programming, on this packed and prestigious night, the choice was not a physical comedy from a film student, but The Force That Through The Green Fire Fuels The Flower (UK 2011), a fully mature, bittersweet portrait of warm love grown cool, with a hint of redemption at the end. 8 minutes of beautifully composed images, in monochrome but set in today’s world, cleverly placed words in the film in lieu of traditional intertitles, telling a simple story with great sensitivity. A true 21st Century silent, and an instant classic modern short. Take a bow Otto Kylmälä , a British-based Finn who attended the Collegium last year. Kudos too to Stephen Horne’s live rendition of the score he recorded for the film’s soundtrack, and to Mr Urbanora who flagged the film here some time ago.

Charlie Chaplin and Merna Kennedy in The Circus (USA 1928), from mubi.com

And so to the main event, The Circus (USA 1928); Chaplin’s score, but played live by the Orchestra San Marco Pordenone, conducted by Günter Buchwald. Both did an outstanding job, once we had allowed Sir Charles to sing his theme song at the beginning. I won’t go on, as it should be a familiar enough film to you readers, but to say that, again, on a big screen with a live orchestra, and a large public audience, it still wins new converts, reiterates our admiration and just gives us a nudge that, yes, silent films still engage with the general public when the public are given the right opportunity. The reception was tremendous.

The late film – follow that!! – was Khabarda (Out of The Way) (Georgia SSR, 1931) and it pulled it off, with Donald Sosin’s fine assistance. Unlike other entries from the Georgian strand I saw, this was deeply satirical and utterly surreal at times – if culturally and politically deeply suspect.

The film tells of a poor, ramshackle Georgian city neighbourhood physically endangered by, and its development hampered by, the presence of an ancient-looking, crumbling church. A heroic member of the proletariat starts to demolish it by hand, while religious, elderly peasantry and bourgeouis intellectuals unite to stop him. They appeal to the authorities, but they were planning a redevelopment anyway; so a campaign along regional historical/cultural lines start … and the satire starts as successive pleas take the campaigners to a venerable man celebrating forty years as a social reformer – though when pressed, he cannot answer what precisely he had achieved. As successive historians are brought in the church gets progressively more ancient until a date of 300 AD is reached; a funeral ceremony is held for the old man (he isn’t actually dead) which includes cakewalking and shimmying patriarchs, and shades of Entr’Acte and much laughter. Eventually the church is revealed as being a Victorian fake …

Although the idea of demolishing the old to make way for the new is intrinsically anathema to fans of old films, and this film was at the vanguard of Stalin’s take on the Cultural Revolution, the film can be enjoyed in isolation if you temporarily ignore the message and the context. It’s technically well-made propaganda, a message delivered with skill, craft and with real verve and energy. Pity about the baggage it carries.

All told, the day of the festival thus far.


Stay tuned for the Mysterious X’s view of day six, when we shall encounter the Antarctic wastes (again), swordfighting Chechens, the wheatfields of Alberta, and the sounds of Denmark.

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

5 responses

  1. Sounds like a bad day to have missed, curses. But I find it hard to believe that they showed The Watermelon Patch again – it’s not just idiotic to have done so, it’s offensive.

  2. Yes, WATERMELON PATCH was as unpleasant as always, and not my favorite to program. As for why we showed it, esp. so soon after it was shown as part of the cross-cutting show a couple of years ago, part of the goal of the Corrick screenings is to screen the collection in its entirety – for better or worse – to experience the whole range of their still-existing films – and this was one that the family (along with others) screened often.

    Is it a fun or comfortable film to watch? No, but necessary to include here since a driving aspect of the Corrick screenings stems from is the rare opportunity to focus on both the context of the collection as well as the content of the films. I did my best to historically ground the film in the programming note, but as they say, a picture (esp. 10 minutes of “picture”) is worth, etc. etc.

    Glad the rest was entertaining – always happy to hear people enjoy the programs. Unfortunately only one more year of Corrick films left to go…

  3. Fair enough, I guess. My objection to the way the film was programmed the last time was that it was solely as an example of film form, which suggested a complete indifference to its content. Of course there is validity in programming it among the Corrick films; it’s just to have had such a pernicious film shown twice in close succession is unfortunate.

  4. I’m totally with you on that. And I agree with X – I certainly hope not to see it for a third time anytime soon.

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