Early & Silent Film

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Pordenone’ ‘Verdi’.

Posted by keith1942 on January 13, 2019

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto has offered an entrée into silent film since 1982. I was happy to go along for the first time in 1993 and[ fortunately] I have been able to attend every year since. In the early years we watched almost the entire programme in the old Cinema Verdi.

“From 1985 to 1998, the festival’s venue was the Cinema Verdi in Pordenone, a picture palace from the great post-war era of Italian cinema-going.”

The auditorium seated just over a 1,000 in a ground floor and a balcony. There was a proper projection booth with twin projectors and an ample and large screen. The downstairs seating was fine with good views of the screen from just about all the seats. The same was true of the balcony but the wooden seats could feel rather hard after several titles; cushions were advisable. On either side of the proscenium were two small balconies. It was from these that one of the great accompaniments was heard at the Festival. In the closing scene of Hell’s Heroes (1929) Charles Bickford staggers down the high street of a small western town. He is dying and clutching a small baby that he has saved and carried across the desert. The whole town is in the local church and as Bickford and the baby stagger through the porch, a choir, sited either side of the proscenium, burst into ‘Silent Night’ in the darkened auditorium. Was there a dry eye in the house.

“Following the local authorities’ decision to demolish the Verdi, in 1999 the Giornate moved to the Teatro Zancanaro in Sacile (15 km from Pordenone), a well-equipped modern auditorium behind the older facade of a theatre which has been presenting films since 1911.”

The Zancanaro was a fine venue but seated under 900. And in these years the Festival was expanding; as it had done continuously since its inception. There were additional screening of titles in the nearby Ridotto.; a hall rather than a cinema. The chairs were hard but the screenings were fine. It was there that I witnessed an impressive translation. We had a print on Stiller’s Gösta Berlings saga, 1924) but without English sub-titles. A member of the Festival audience [whose name alas I do not have] sat by the pianist and for over two hours translated the Swedish title cards.

“The Teatro Comunale “Giuseppe Verdi” of Pordenone rises on the ashes of the Cinema Teatro Verdi, closed on June 30, 1999 and subsequently demolished. In October 2007 the festival moved back to Pordenone and to the new Verdi theatre.”

The Festival has continued to have a screening at the Zancanaro on the Friday evening preceding the main programme. In Pordenone most of the screenings are in the new Verdi, with a few screening s[including Saturday morning when the orchestra rehearse for the final gala] in the Cinema Zero.

There were problems with the design of the new Verdi building, an opera and event venue rather than specifically for cinema. Apparently the sight lines were not good for all seats and the projection booth was inadequate. The move, planned for 2006, was delayed for a year. And the Festival has continued in this venue since 2007. The interior of the auditorium has steps by the side doors and there has been a few stumbles and an accident. So a dedicated band of ushers who assist people with torches to their seats. They are fine. Unfortunate some of the actual audience members also use their mobile phones as torches and quite a few of them do not realise that it is better to hold this at knee level rather than wave it about. There are three balconies. The first has some seats cordoned off because they are in front of the projection booth. The upper two are steep. There are quite a few seats on the ground floor and in the upper balconies where the sight lines are not good. I really did prefer the old Cinema Verdi.

ground floor and screen from balcony

The new Verdi seats just under 1,000 and that is the average number of registered guests in the last three years. And there are the local citizens who attend many of the screenings. So the last couple of years has seen queues forming, often 30 minutes or more before the next session stars. Fortunately rain is not frequent in Pordenone and even in October the temperature in the evening is mild. For many the queue if because they wish to sit in particular area. But for major titles it is just to ensure you can sit and watch the film.

There is a small Ridotto or rehearsal hall which is mainly used for the Master classes for aspiring silent film accompanists. But the hall was the venue for a striking commemoration. Celebrating the trail blazing FIAF event of 1981 which offered an in-depth study of early cinema. In this event we watched selection of some of the important material from that occasion, happily still on 35mm.

The Cinema Zero is fine but much smaller. It used to have a ground floor and balcony, the latter with the better sat. It was redesigned a year or so ago. And now there is one rake, with a separation aisle and standard comfortable seats throughout. However, it was just point this that the cinema went ‘all digital’. I remember passing a forlorn and abandoned 35mm projector outside the rear of the building.

Because of its design the Verdi has three floors of lobbies. One with a small coffee bar. It is here that the Festival places small exhibitions coinciding with a particular programme of films. And there are also a set of book and merchandise stalls. A good place for uncommon books and a wide variety of videos.

There is a large screen in the proscenium, 12 metres wide and 6 metres high. For screening sin the silent ratio of 1.33:1 this reduces to 8 by 5 metres. The projection booth in the Verdi is at the rear of the lower balcony and slightly off-centre. I had the chance to visit this and chat briefly to some of the projection team. The booth is fairly cramped. It should be noted that these days about half of the Festival programme is on 35mm prints, the rest on digital formats. So every day the team have a stack of 35mm reels to bring up, store, project and then move for the next batch.

There are two 35mm projectors, Cinemeccanica ZX8000H. Designed for a large screen the have a complete range of frame rates below 24 fps and the team also have a complete set of plates for the different aspect ratios. One year we had a film in academy ratio fired up in standard widescreen when the plates were confused. But this was a rare aberration. The team have a high standard of projection including getting the focal length right nearly always.

The digital projector is a 2k Christie DCP machines. These are fairly widely used projectors. However, 2K DCPs are not really equivalent to 35mm. There is a debate about just where the equivalence between digital and film falls. But all the sites I have visited reckon that 2K is not equivalent. Unfortunately despite the fact that 4K DCP is an available format; and that digital cameras are now available at 6K, most institutions including many archives still mainly use 2K. In addition the Christie only has standard frame rates, 24fps, 25fps and 48 fps. There are agreed specifications for lower frame rates but [like 4K]these have very little availability.

Fortunately the ratio of film to digital has settled over the last couple of years around 50/50, I hope this will continue, However, the omens are not propitious. At a conference in 2018 an archivist from the Austrian Film Archive explained that the master of a new restoration was on tape and the funds were not available for a film master. I wonder, just as we have lost the old Verdi, whether the current far too rapid changeover of formats may not lead to lost films. Thus repeating the sad loss when sound replaced silent.

 

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