Pordenone diary 2011 – day eight

Waiting for the show to begin

The sun sets on another Giornate del Cinema Muto. Eight days of silent films from every corner of the globe, touching every subject and embracing every style imaginable. Our final day’s report once again comes from the Bioscope’s reporter à clef, The Mysterious X.

And so we arrive at the final day of the Giornate 2011. A bittersweet day, as inevitably there are mixed feelings as we prepare ourselves for all the goodbyes, to our fellow delegates, new friends and old, the people who work behind the scenes, and the good people of Pordenone who make us feel so welcome … and sigh a little sigh of relief that there isn’t a Day 9, and we can start to make up for the lack of sleep of the past week or so.

The last Saturday is the odd day out at Pordenone; the morning screenings are held at Cinemazero, Pordenone’s arthouse cinema half a mile up the Via Garibaldi from our usual hangouts, while the orchestra for the closing gala rehearses. The programme up there tends to be synchronised-score or early sound films that round off threads that have been running all week; so the offer this year was a couple of Italian-American films made for the New York Italian audience in the early 30s, and the remainder of the Shostakovich/FEKS material, taking the story up to Skazka O Glupom Myshonke (The Story of the Silly Little Mouse) (USSR 1940), a 1940 animation that Shostakovich scored, or rather, was animated to his music.

Well, it was a glorious day, the sky was the purest azure, the air clear … so I sat ouside the Posta and wrote up my notes while sampling their fine coffee; saving what remained of my energy for what promised to be a long night. Sorry. I’m sure the films were wonderful …

After a light lunch, a special screening of South – Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic Of The Antarctic (UK 1919), Frank Hurley’s masterpiece of documentary, avant la lettre. A film familiar to many of us, this screening was enhanced by both the subtle work of Stephen Horne and material from Shackleton’s expedition memoir, read by distinguished British actor Paul McGann. Cleverly handled, the readings were spare when the film grows intertitle-heavy, more expansive when useful in commenting on the images; carefully not overlapping either the appearance of titles onscreen or duplicating their information. It worked very well, Stephen and Paul barely visible onstage, but spectrally unlit and almost in the wings; their contribution definitely added to the film. While it would have been different to the original lecture presentations of the 1910s, it gave a sense of how they might have been; the low-key theatricality of the presentation respectful to the material, and adding to it.

Lili Damita and Georges Trevillein Das Spielzeug Von Paris, from http://filmarchiv.at

A very quick break, then the best of the early Disneys we saw, his modern retelling of Cinderella (USA 1922) which was great fun … and then Das Spielzeug Von Paris (The Plaything of Paris) (Austria 1925) from the Kertesz strand. As promised in the trailer previously screened, this was a pretty racy trip through the life and loves of Parisienne cabaret star Célimène, a young Lili Damita; adored by all Paris, but particularly by a dripping wet (and promised to another) young English diplomat, and a positively ancient French aristocrat playboy, who seems to view her as simply the latest addition to his collection. But then, at least in part, the film is all about possession. The aristocrat gives the impression he wants to hang her on the wall to be admired like a painting; the Englishman wants both to put her on a pedestal and take her on fishing holidays … but she belongs to Paris, as much as Paris belongs to her … this is not the ending that we see in Moulin Rouge, for example, where the showqueen goes back onstage and performs through the tears as Real Life has failed her … here, Célimène goes back to her cabaret stardom because … she wants to. It’s her Real Life, and she likes it that way. And eventually the Englishman understands that … the aristocrat always knew.

Lili Damita was a revelation here. Not always convincing in Fiacre No. 13 as the cabbie’s adopted daughter, here she was in her element; an-ex dancer herself, she was fabulous performing in the cabaret sequences, and was having great fun in the backstage sequences, being worshipped by the various suitors; and it seemed to be Lili in the howling gale, drenched in road mud, with the car coming full tilt at her … all told, a cracking film, with glamour, dance sequences, comedy, a few thrills … no great insight into the human condition, perhaps, but highly entertaining.

Lilian Gish in The Wind

I also missed – accidentally this time – two more Italian films from the 1910s, thinking the screenings had finished before the main event; The Wind (USA 1928) with Carl Davis conducting his own score for the Mitteleuropa Orchestra. Not having been around for the original Thames Silents presentations in the eighties, it’s always a treat to see these films and scores revived; Wings was a highlight of last year’s Giornate, and The Wind was, for me, this year. Somewhere in this room here I might have a VHS off-air from the last time British TV deigned to show the Photoplay print with this score … but nothing ever compares to seeing and hearing these presentations live.

The score for The Wind is slightly unusual among Davis’ work as it – as dictated by the film – is as suffused with musical and sound effects, as the film is with the visualisation of the incessant gale. You don’t get the lavishly orchestrated melodies that inhabit many of his scores, but it’s absolutely right for the film. And what a powerful film it is. Gish – who introduced the film herself via a tape made for the film’s previous Giornate outing in 1986 – is acting her socks off as the always vulnerable, but increasingly disturbed – and disturbing – young woman stuck in the middle of nowhere with a husband she doesn’t know. Opposite her is the superb, impassive Lars Hanson, like a rock being beaten by the waves of Gish’s performance. It’s heightened stuff, and with lesser performers could have tipped over into the ridiculous … but this is Gish and Hanson, and you get totally absorbed into the film. Wonderful.

And then the final programme … a smashing collection of films-about-filmgoing that really deserved to be shown at a more audience-friendly time of 10.30 pm on the last Saturday …

Al Cinematografo, Guardate … E Non Toccate (At the Cinema – Look, Don’t Touch) (Italy 1912) is a comedy where a predatory Ernesto Vaser tries to play footsie with a female audience member, and it all goes predictably wrong in the dark; Lost And Won (USA 1911) a slight drama where two forcibly seperated sweethearts are reunited when the boy, his fortune now made, sees her starring in a film … Amour et Science (France 1912) was a short sci-fi drama about a television experiment going horribly wrong; At The Hour of Three (UK 1912) was a rather fine drama, and early example of the ‘Filmed alibi’ situation; a man is accused of murder, but a chance appearance of him at a parade filmed for a newsreel, at the time of the murder, is spotted by his love … nicely made, it has the bonus for us Brits of footage taken inside the Clarendon Studios at Croydon, and a cinema at Selhurst designed to look like a victorian country cottage, bay windows, window boxes … Arthème, Opérateur (France 1913) didn’t make much of an impact; I can’t honestly remember a thing about it … Mutt and Jeff at the Movies (US 1920) finished the show off, with our animated heroes doing their best at running a picture house …

So, there we all are, the last straggling survivors of the Giornate 2011, milling around outside the Verdi at gone midnight, not sure where to go or what to do … what can you do in the early hours of a Sunday morning in Italy? Find a wine bar, talk films, drink wine, laugh a lot. At least I got to bed by 4 am this year …

Overall, in retrospect, it was a good year; the local populace were as welcoming and hospitable as always; we missed the Ciervo, a restaurant opposite the Verdi known for its good food and lightning service, now relocated to the ground floor of a hotel just far enough away to be slightly inconvenient, but the many others took up the strain; the staff at the Posta were as hardworking and patient with us as ever, and the gentlemen in local politics and sponsoring companies seemed pleased to continue to dip into their various purses to help the Giornate continue. Fingers crossed, the way the world is at the moment. The staff and volunteers of the Giornate itself cannot be thanked enough; nothing ever seems too much trouble … the ushers in the Verdi were attentive, but failed to stop a couple of people coming a cropper in the obstacle course that is the Verdi’s auditorium. Blame the architects, though …

On the film side; there were some real highlights, some real personal discoveries, and no real clunkers; some were of course, not as good as others; the early Kertesz films were disappointing, with only his later silent films redeeming him; but historically interesting’ I suppose. The overall programme was rather dominated by Soviet cinema; the wonderful Georgian programme I would not have missed for the world, the FEKS/Shostakovich strand was more variable, shall we say, and Fragments of an Empire, in the Canon Revisited strand, a real highlight. But quite a lot of Russia for one week. And the music, all week, was simply superb, the standard being raised every year, it seems. I’ve said it before, here last year, probably, but the golden age of silent film music? We’re living in it. Congratulations to everyone involved. Now to start reserving flights for next year …

And thank you TMX for four days of fine reporting, enabling us once again to offer a comprehensive record of the Giornate del Cinema Muto to add to the archives. It was a fine festival, a little top-heavy with USSR offering for some tastes, but without a dull day, and with many highpoints, revelations and re-evaluations. My vote for films of the festival goes to Lady of the Dugout (which I knew before), The Soldier’s Courtship (which more than lived up to expectations) and Nihon Nankyoku Tanken (Japanese polar exploration, full of revelations), but I agree that Fragments of a Empire was an extraordinary piece of work. Hearty congratulations to all who continue to put on the festival with such professionalism, dedication and invention.

‘Til next time.

Pordenone diary 2011 – day one
Pordenone diary 2011 – day two
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