Felix The Cat Trips thru Toyland US1925
The Pordenone Silent Film Festival this year ran from October 5th to 12th. It was not the strongest programme of recent years, but [as always] there were opportunities to see classic films and to make delightful surprises. It was also a very full programme, so it was quite an intense week of viewing. A day started at 8.50 a.m. but as an incentive there was an early attraction with Felix the Cat (Otto Messmer, 1924 – 1928). A day ended with Ko-Ko the Clown (Max Fleischer, 1923 – 1927), though with not quite the panache of Felix. The alternative attraction of open-air bars and restaurants were weaker this year, as the weather was the most inclement I can remember. Most days there was some rain: the occasional sunshine was weak and the temperature generally rather chilly for this time of year in Italy. However, there were a lot of familiar faces, as well as new enthusiasts, so the warmth of the socialising made up for the weather.
The outstanding section of the programme was Ukraine: The Great Experiment. In the late 1920s the relative autonomy afforded the Ukraine within the Soviet Union also applied to its film body, VUFKU [All-Ukrainian Film Committee}. This enabled a series of avant-garde and politically complex films to be produced; both by Ukrainian filmmakers and by ‘exiles’ from the centre like Dziga Vertov. We were treated to nine features from this period, including famous classics directed by Oleksandr Dovzhenko, Arsenal (1929) and Earth (Zemlya 1930). But what was such a treat was the quality of the other [to me unknown] Ukrainian films. There was exciting use of Soviet montage and powerful dramatic stories and characters. And in a period when filmmakers working in Moscow were finding their horizons shrinking the politics of these films were critically exciting. Two films in particular impressed me. Two Days (Dva Dni 1927) directed by Heorhii Stabovyi and photographed by Danylo Demutskyi. This was a father / son story set during the 1917 – 1921 Civil War. It had great intensity and a combination of montage and expressionist lighting which was immensely powerful. The second was the most entertaining of the new films this year, The Self-Seeker (Shkurnyyk 1919). It was directed by Mykola Shpykovskyi, who earlier was the screenwriter and co-director [with Vsevolod Pudovkin) of Chess Fever (Shakhmatnaya goryachka, 1925). Sequences in this film are just as funny as the earlier classic short. The Self-Seeker of the title in a petit bourgeois caught up in the Civil War conflict. But the star of the film is an unaccredited camel, a great performance and an inspired metaphor for the period.
We also had a both a Ukrainian film and a film set in the Russian federation, Turksib (1929) directed by Victor Turin. The latter records the construction of the Turksib – Siberia railway. It make impressive use construction images and of montage. However, I think it lacks the poetry of Mikhail Kalatosov’s Salt for Svanetia (Jim Shuante 1930). Turksib was though the Soviet film that had the greasiest influence on the British documentarists in the 1930s. There were other Soviet films, always a good sign. We saw both the 1920 film version of Gorky’s Mother (Mat, an incomplete film) and the more famous version from 1926 directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin. The two versions took rather different approaches to adapting the classic novel, expressing the different social contexts of 1920 and 1926. And we had a programme of Soviet Animation. The range of subjects and styles was impressive. There was Pochta (Post, 1929) a film adaptation of a famous poem about the postal system. This was an avant-garde film which later had a soundtrack added [now lost]. Vintik-Shpintik (The Little Screw 1927) was a delightful political parable about socialist co-operation. And there was Samoyedskii Malchik (Eskimo Boy, 1928, but incomplete) a tale of teenage daring and overcoming archaic traditions.
Mother USSR 1926
Another fine section of the programme was Sealed Lips: Sweden’s Forgotten Years, 1925 – 1929. The most praised of the Swedish filmmakers in the silent era, Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjöström, left for Hollywood in 1924. This retrospective focussed on the work of directors who continued in the Swedish film industry at a time when it was making strenuous efforts in the international film market. The most famous of these is Gustaf Molander whose 1927 film Sealed Lips (Förseglade Läppar) contributed the title of the programme. The film’s plot bears some resemblance to the later Intermezzo (1936) though it is more melodramatic d includes a convent setting. There were projection problems with two of the 35mm prints: unfortunately this included Flickan I Frack (The Girl in Tails, 1936). Directed by Karin Swanström, an actress and filmmaker, it had a feminist story line, which seems quite contemporary. There was some striking location sequences across the films: examples of Swedish cinema’s ability to use natural setting and landscape to great effect. The final film in this programme was really interesting, the Swedish version of the British/Swedish co-production A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929), titled Fängen N:R 53 (Convict 53). This version is remarkably different from the UK release, which has a famous sequence set in a cinema screening a ‘talkie’ and using a now lost early experiment in sound. The Swedish print eschews any use of the newly arrived technology, and follows a linear plot without flashbacks. It seems unlikely that the British director Anthony Asquith was responsible to the Swedish version, but it was not clear from the notes who might have been.
Special Events including the opening film, Blancanieves (2012), that is, a C21st Silent). Also the closing film Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925), accompanied by a score by Carl Davis. This is not Lloyd’s best film, though it has some very funny sequences, which work well with an appreciative audience. But it does have a very conventional ending which subverts any satirical intent. Notably Harold ignores the sensible advice of his girlfriend Peggy (Jobyna Ralston). The most publicised special event was the premiere of a long-lost film made by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre Co. Too Much Johnson (1938). This was made up of three short sequences which were designed to accompany a performance in 1938 of the play of the same name. Unfinished and never seen this was a unique event. The actual film was interesting rather than impressive, but it does prefigure some of Welles’ later cinematic work. A sequence among a pile of wooden crates could be related to both Citizen Kane (1941) and The Lady from Shanghai (1947). It would be most interesting to screen the films as part of a performance of the original late C19th play.
Joseph Cotten in Too Much Johnston US 1938
The most distinctive event was a performance by a Benshi, Ichiro Kataoka. The Benshi accompanied silent Japanese film with a dynamic narration, [usually without any title cards]. Ichiro accompanied three films: a shortened version of a samurai feature Chikemuri Takatanobaba (Blood-Splattered Takanobaba, 1927). Chokon (Unforgettable Grudge, 1926) survives only in one reel. This depicts a desperate fight by samurai Kazuma whilst his younger brother flees with the heroine Yukie. There were some noteworthy camera shots, including one that seemed to prefigure Mizoguchi: I thought of Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho Dayu, 1954), my friend of The Crucified Lovers (Chikamatsu Monogatari, 1954). The feature was Otome Shirizu Sono Inchi Hanamonogatari Fukujuso (The Scent of the Pheasant’s Eye 1935). The title scent of the pheasant’s eye comes from a plant, which symbolises the intense relationship between a pair of sisters-in-law. The film is taken from a story by a lesbian writer, Nobuko Yoshiya, involved in a contemporary feminist movement. Whilst the feelings between the two women are suggested rather than made explicit the mise en scéne and the characterisation by the two actresses [Naomi Egawa as Kaoru and Mitsue Hisamatsuas Miyoko] generates a strong sense of passion.
Ichiro’s narration bought a similar dynamism to the accompaniment, which also featured John Sweeney on the piano. The films had English subtitles, since trying to translate a Benshi would seem an intimidating task. It takes a little while to adjust to this rather different approach to ‘silent’ film, but it brings a powerful new dimension.
Pheasant’s Eyes Japan 1935
The Canon Revisited, now in its fifth year, featured the aforementioned Mother and Turksib. There was also the Paramount 1928 feature, Beggars of Life, directed by William Wellman. We were more fortunate that UK audiences, as we had the George Eastman House 35mm print. The film stars Wallace Beery, Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen, all ‘on the road’ or the rail. Wellman had experiences similar to those of the ‘road kids ‘ in the film. There is a strong social context, as in Wellman’s later sound film Wild Boys on the Road (1933). And there are some fine open-air sequences, and a powerful if predictable ending.
Early Cinema was represented in two programmes. The Joly-Normandin camera system was patented in 1896. Its distinctive feature was five perforations per image. A whole series of films were produced for the system between 1896 and 1898, since it could only project its own films. We watched over fifty short films from different European archives, all on 35mm. This was also true of a selection from The Corrick Collection from the Australian Film Archive: all relatively short films.
Another discovery [for me] were the films of Gerhard Lamprecht. Filming in Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s his features relied on a form of realism and ‘curiosity and human interest’. Childhood and poverty are recurring themes in his films. Thus Die Unehelichen (Children of No Importance, 1926) follows the travails of ‘illegitimate children’ forced into care and foster homes. Unter der Laterne (Under the Lantern, 1928) deals with the circumstances that force a woman into prostitution. Menschen Untereinander (People Among Each Other, 1926) has the interesting trope of a number of different apartments and residents in a Berlin building. The films are well made with a strong sense of sympathy for the characters caught in poverty and deprivation but the stories do feel overdetermined. And another problem is the recurring victim-hood of women characters. Even in the relatively upbeat People Among Each Other it is the unsympathetic landlady who endures the closing humiliations.
Less successful was a tribute to the Czech actress Anny Ondra; best known for her lead roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Manxman (1928) and Blackmail (1929). We saw a selection of her early films produced by the Czech film industry, where she became a star before moving into other European productions. The films had rather undeveloped production values and problematic continuity. Any Ondra’s screen presence was not helped by her wearing ‘Mary Pickford’ style ringlets. There was one moment when the star quality apparent in the Hitchcock films appeared momentarily, but overall we were puzzled about Ondra’s ‘stardom’.
I have to confess that I saw only a little of Mexico: Records of Revolution. The programme was predominately actualities of places, peoples and events in two decades of revolutionary change, [1896 into the teens of the C20th]. However, the early programmes relied on film that was probably not well preserved. All the material I saw had been copied onto DCP, and generally lacked definition and contrast. The whole question of digital versus celluloid continues to be a problem for presenting early film. Peter Rist [of Concordia] reckoned that this year about 60% of the programme was on film. However the digital presentations included quite a substantial number of the features. Pordenone and most of the Archives have now implemented the FIAF specifications on frame rates, which means there was little sign of step printing. However, uniformly the archives were using 2K DCP. Gauging quality is tricky, because the varying factors include the state of the original, the restoration or re-printing process and then the digital transfer. However, having seen an amount of digitally transferred material I think 2K lacks the dynamic contrast of good quality 35mm. There were a number of screenings, especially when the films [like the Soviet features] used extensive chiaroscuro, where areas of the image lacked definition and contrast. It is to be hoped that archives will move onto 4K or above sooner rather than later.
One of the pleasures of Le Giornate is the musical accompaniment. We were missing a couple of the regular accompanist this year, but the main stalwarts of the team were there: Neil Brand, Frank Bockius, Gunther Buchwald, Antonio Coppola, Stephen Horne, John Sweeney and Donald Sosin. . All have developed differing styles but are equally capable of accompanying the films, adding to the story and emotions without distracting from the film itself. This is not a skill that is mastered by all musicians. We also had some new accompanist, including two who had matriculated from the Festival’s Master Class. There were also several visiting musicians who accompanied particular films. I especially liked Marcin Pukaluk’s sound accompaniment to Shkurnyk and The Port Mone Trio accompaniment to Khlib (Bread, 1930).
The other essential ingredients are the translations of the many different languages on title cards. For the last few years Le Giornate has used digital projection. It seems archives send in DVD copies before the festival and these form the basis for the digital titles. This year it seems that there was a mishap when the wrong DVD was sent for Der geheime Kurier (1928, translated as The Mysterious Messenger) a rather free adaptation of Stendahl’s Le Rouge et le Noir, starring Ivan Mozhukhin. So all we saw was a brief explanatory title but no translation of the German. However, two festival regulars came to the rescue. Caspar Tybjerg and then Gerhild Krebs [for the bulk of the film] provided an in-auditorium translation as the title cards came and went. This was much appreciated by those of use who are less linguistically skilled. I should also pay a tribute to the Festival interpreter, Margherita Roncaglia. She translates the various speeches and addresses directly and with despatch. And she appears unfazed even when the occasion gets the better of someone and they present her with large blocks of translation.
There was, of course, a lot more than this. This can be seen in the online edition of the Festival Catalogue.
Stills courtesy of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto and the contributing Archives.