Early & Silent Film

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The 30th Giornate

Posted by keith1942 on January 13, 2012

This was an auspicious date in the history of the Pordenone Silent film Festival, held in this now famous Italian town in the first week of October 2011. We enjoyed an impressive selection of early films accompanied with the usual excellent live music. The signs that this is not the best decade for film or the arts were, though, apparent. It was a more European programme than usual, and there were a number of missing faces from the USA – transatlantic flight costs I assume.

Even so the new Verdi was packed for the most popular films with the townspeople crowding in too catch such rarities.

For me the highlights of the Festival were two programmes of Soviet films: one featuring the work of the Factory of the Eccentric Actor [FEKS] and scores provided for these films by Dmitri Shostakovich. The key filmmakers in FEKS were Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, whose Novyy Vavilon (New Babylon, 1929) was the opening gala event of the week. The print was from the Cineteca del Friuli and the Mitteleuropa Orchestra conducted by Mark Fitz-Gerald performed the score. [He has reconstructed Shostakovich’s score and it is available on the Naxos label]. The film runs for 92 minutes at 20 fps. It was shortened from a longer cut shortly before its premiere and there is a ‘longer version’. However, Trauberg argued that the additional 700 metres contained ‘scenes Kozintsev and I deliberately removed.’

New Babylon is a tour de force in style and content. It dramatises the events of the historic Paris Commune of 1870. The tile refers to a large department store where the frenzy of capitalist consumption and expropriation takes place. But the central focus of the drama is the heroic struggle by the Parisian proletariat against their bourgeois masters. The Commune failed in part because the German invaders laying siege to Paris were content to sit on their hands whilst their nationalist enemy but class allies suppressed the revolution. In fact the film is not especially analytical, an agitational film rather than propaganda. It makes impressive use of the familiar Soviet film techniques: it offers some of the finest montage in that cinema and displays the ‘eccentric acting’ in the grand Guignol style of the bourgeoisie and its allies. The music by Shostakovich is one of the finest scores for Silent film and the combination of film and music is inspiring.

There were several other fine features and some surviving fragments by this school. The other Soviet series was Georgian Cinema. This was an interesting programme but suffered from technical difficulties. The 35-mm prints only turned up halfway through the Festival and the early screenings relied on DVDs. Archives have started sending these to the Festival to allow the preparation of translations, projected using a digital format. In days gone by when prints were late the programme was re-arranged as far as possible. A response which I think it preferable to using the non-theatrical digital format. I only managed to sit through one of these screenings, Amerikana (The Jobbing Press, 1930). And this was because it was such a fascinating story, recreating the agitational and propaganda work of the Bolshevik’s under the Tsarist regime. A later film print was Khabarda (Out of the Way, 1931). This was a fairly avant-garde satire on the reactionary religious traditions and the petty bourgeoisie strata that defended such anachronisms. The film counterpoints a reactionary faction defending a supposedly traditional shrine that stands in the way of a new worker’s housing development. The film plays with the counterpoint between the grotesque reactionary characters and the more heroic proletarian ones. It also uses bizarre almost surrealist sequences, including one where a religious style funeral is whizzed up through the clouds towards ‘heaven’ and back again.

There was also a Soviet classic in The Canon Revisited programme of the Festival. This was Olomok Imperii (A Fragment of an Empire, 1919) directed by Fridrikh Ermler from a scenario by Katerina Vinogradskaia and himself. This was a film I first came across in Politics and Film (Furhammer and Isaksson, 1971) in the 1970s. Finally, in 2011, I was able to see it. The film justified the wait. It is a fascinating take on Soviet culture, with a fairly distinctive approach to plotting. A soldiers wounded in the civil war suffers from amnesia so that when he returns to Moscow and his old factory he is amazed by the new world of socialist society. The opening of the film makes terrific use of chiaroscuro and montage: whilst the resolution of the film offers a particularly sharp political comment.

"Fragment of an Empire"

The Canon Revisited also included a screening of Kenneth Macpherson’s Borderline, an experimental project that allowed Paul Robeson one of his few progressive and central film characters. The narrative is elliptical but the direction and characterisation are fascinating. Apart from Robeson’s role the film also projects a positive image of both gays and lesbians rare at this period.

Another canonical film was Hintertreppe (Backstairs, 1921). This was a Henny Porten project: she was a major diva of the German cinema. The film has the strong contrast between light and shadow of German film in this period: and it has very few Intertitles, [the original print had none]. This places great emphasis on the performances, of Portman as the housemaid and Fritz Kortner as the smitten postman. These, together with the emphatic direction, develop a powerful and melodramatic tale.

The event of the week was found in the Early Cinema programme with the screening of Lobster Film’s restoration of a colour version of Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage Dans Le Lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902). This is a classic story of the care and devotion lavished on restoring lost masterworks. Méliès film was available originally in both black and white and hand-coloured versions. The later was thought not to survive in a complete 14-minute copy, until the Filmoteca de Catalunya received a donation in 1993. The film passed to the Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange of Lobster Films, who have discovered and restored a number of Méliès’ films over the years. The poor state of the print meant that it took years of patient work and the arrival of new technologies before the current restoration could be seen in 2011. The project has been supported by other institutions and this appears to be part of the reason why [at the moment] the film is only being distributed in a digital print with a soundtrack. This was commissioned from a French group AIR, who play ‘astro-pop’. In fact at the Festival there was both a screening with the new soundtrack and a more traditional performance with a piano accompaniment.

Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange delivered the annual Jonathan Dennis Memorial Lecture on the rediscovery and restoration of the Méliès film. In the course of this Bromberg argued that the film was a restoration rather than a reconstruction: an important distinction. I actually think it is more properly described as a reconstruction. A volume produced for the Cannes festival premiere details the techniques used, including digital copying frame by frame of the surviving film. These have enabled the production of the 35mm and digital versions. However, it appears that both versions are in sound formats: at 24 fps. I assume these have been produced by the computer version of step printing, adding additional frames or parts there-of to arrive at a synchronised version. The ratio used for this is not detailed: “The original material was captured at a much slower frame rate than today’s methods: 14 frames per second (fps) with a “hand-cranked” camera. It will now need to playback at the proper apparent speed while paying out at 24 frames per second.” In fact, it is quite straightforward to project a film at 14 fps on an appropriate 35mm machine, [though apparently not on digital]. To what extent the extra frames matter depends on the particular film, but this seems to me much more of a reconstruction than a restoration.

I was not impressed with the accompaniment by Air. It opens with a heavy bass line, which did not seem to fit the images. Overall I found it distracting rather than appropriate. The reasoning behind this choice of musical accompaniment is apparently the belief that a popular band will encourage younger people to view the film in its new format and this may spark an interest in early film. I find the reasoning suspect: I remember Giorgio Moroder’s Metropolis, [which at the time looked better than most of the available prints], but I cannot say it seemed to produce a new generation of early film fans. What concerns me most is that it appears that generally it will not be seen in a 35mm print that can be projected as originally produced by Méliès

There were a whole lot more early treasures, including several programmes of early Japanese animation: The Birth of Anime: Pioneers of Japanese Animation. This offered a varied range of films, beautifully drawn and with very distinctive tales. One favourite for me was Kanimanji Engi (The Tale of the Crab Temple, 1924), a fable where a young girl builds a temple in thanks for a rescue by a colony of crabs. There was a range of material to mark the centenary of the historic Antarctic explorations The Race to the Pole, including the expedition led by Captain Scott. We had The Great White Silence, Herbert Posting’s 1924 record of the earlier tragic events. It was shown in a 35mm print at 18 fps: in the UK I saw it in a digital format at 24 fps, the latter seemed to me at times slightly too fast. However, the jewel of this programme was Frank Hurley’s South (1919) – Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic of the Antarctic. As well as a musical accompaniment the film enjoyed readings from Shackleton’s diaries by Paul McGann, which set off the glorious images very effectively.

There was a programme of early films by the Hollywood director Michael Curtiz, Kertész before Curtis. His output was fairly variable, but my favourite was a short one-reel film, My Brother is Coming (Jön az Öcsém) made in Hungary during the short-lived Communist republic of 1919. Filmed mainly in tableaux it uses a contemporary poem to dramatise a brother’s return imbued with the new, vital Communist values. The film has great elan. Unfortunately the catalogue notes were by some bourgeois critic who lacked sympathy or empathy for such propaganda works. A later film was Moon of Israel / Die Sklavenkönigin (1924), a co-production of Hungarian and British companies. Adapted from the novel by H. Rider Haggard the story crosses over with other biblical epics like DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923). This film also features the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites, and is ingenious in its special effects as the more famous Hollywood version.

The closing event was MGM’s 1928 The Wind: very much a studio picture despite the involvement of silent luminaries Lilian Gish and Victor Seastrom. This is a beautiful and powerful film, though watching it again I realised that its gender politics follow the conventions of the period, with Gish’s Letty sacrificed to bourgeois marriage and domesticity.  She and Seastrom apparently planned a darker and more subversive ending. The film was accompanied by Mitteleuropa orchestra conducted by Carl Davis, performing his score written for the Thames Silents programme. It is very effective though occasionally going a little over the top.

There was also a lot of interest in the 43 minutes of an incomplete surviving film, The White Shadow (UK 1924).  This was partly due to the involvement of the young Alfred Hitchcock in the production as scriptwriter. In fact, there appeared to be two camps among the fans for the film: those who saw the surviving fragments as portents for a later, brilliant career; and those who thought interest lay in the film’s direction by Graham Cutts, another successful filmmaker of the 1920s. On the basis of the three surviving reels the jury was still out for me, though the restored print from the New Zealand Film Archive looked good. It is true though that Cutts is one of a number of British filmmakers whose reputations have suffered from the overarching shadow of Hitchcock and the academic industry he spawned.

Clive Brooks and Betty Compson in The White Shadow

There were all sorts of other early and rare treats, as you might expect in a weeklong all-day, very day programme. These included films by Charlie Chaplin and early examples of animation from the Walt Disney studio. And a programme, Treasures of the West, marked the fifth DVD box set of US film archives from the National Film Preservation Foundation. One of the great pleasures was the musical accompaniments. There were some particular fine performances, both among the solo piano accompaniments and the orchestrations. I especially enjoyed Gabriel Thibaudeau’s splaying for Asphalt (1929), the elate German/UFA silent. I was impressed when I saw Mie Yanashita stagger in for the Japanese animation with a capacious holdall, containing apparently some 14 different instruments: which she varied with great aplomb through the programme. And several of the regular musicians had composed scores for particular films: Günter Buchwald performed with a trio for the Georgian film Eliso (1928) and Maud Nelissen led a quartet for Shinel (The Overcoat, 1926) a Soviet adaptation of Gogol’s story. The UK’s own John Sweeney offered really good solo accompaniments both for the Antarctic films and some of the Soviets. So it was another rewarding week. And I wait for 2012 with anticipation.

Stills courtesy of Giornate del Cinema Muto.

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