Early & Silent Film

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019

Posted by keith1942 on October 23, 2019

Catalogue cover – Marion Davies

Once again a international mix of committed cineastes gathered in Pordenone in north-west Italy for the 38th instance of this annual Festival. There were about a thousand here for a week of film from the first thirty five years of cinema. Within this crowd were a select group of ‘Donors’, who support the Festival by attending and contributing financially. Some have been returning year after year since its earliest days in the 1980s.

All guests receive a pass and a Catalogue; the Catalogue, with details of the titles, their provenance and some indication of the content. These came in the Festival bag graced by Marion Davies in Beverley of Graustark (1916), a Ruritanian story screened at the Festival; fans of William S. Hart were able to buy a festival T-shirt featuring this western hero. Donors also received a selection of new writings on the ‘silent era’. This year there were two books from Paulo Cherchi Usai, one of the founder of the Festival. He has also recently finished his work as Senior Curator of the Moving Image Department at the George Eastman Museum. His work and research there has fed in to the two books.

‘Silent Cinema A Guide to Study, Research and Curatorship’, BFI 2019.

This is a revised and much expanded version of his book and which has one of the most thorough accounts of the cinematic process in the founding and development of cinema and which also addresses the issues around the transition from photo-chemical film to digital.

‘The Art of Film Projection A Beginner’s Guide’. George Eastman Museum, 2019.

This promises to be a detailed study of projection of ‘reel’ film in all its aspects; a volume that should be extensively read in Britain.

‘Silver Screen to Digital A Brief History of Film Technology’ by Carlo Montanaro, Translated by Liam Mac Gabhann. John Libbey Publishing, 2019.

The book covers from the silent era up until the new computer based systems.

Paulo Cherchi Usai giving an interview

The volumes are pertinent. Peter Rist, who every year does his calculations, noted that there were 27 features on DCP at this year’s Festivals but only 17 on 35mm, i.e. titles running 50 minutes or longer. The short film programmes were better, about 50/50; 76 titles on 35mm and 78 on digital. The latter were interesting as digital versions and film versions were side by side and the characteristics of each could be both compared and contrasted. So far this has confirmed my preference for the traditional technology.

The opening and closing events of the Festival were digital projections. The opening night offered Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid with Chaplin’s own musical accompaniment performed by the Orchestra San Marco conducted by Timothy Brock; an expert in music for Chaplin’s films who arranged the score. The digital version was fine but this was the version re-edited by Chaplin and some of us would have preferred the original version from 1921.

The closing night offered Alfred Hitchcock The Lodger, A Story of London Fog (1927). On this occasion the Orchestra San Marco was conducted by Ben Palmer with a score composed for the title by Neil Brand. This was a digital rendering of a tinted copy and [as is frequently the case with the format] the tinting was over-saturated, reducing the definition within the image.

The audience included the citizens of Pordenone, who also enjoy the Festival. One of their favoured events is ‘Striking a New Note’, titles accompanied by the Orchestra dell’Instituto Comprensivo Rorai Cappuccini e della Scuola Secondaria di Primo Grado di P. P. Pasolini. [a school celebrating the great film maker; I somehow doubt we have a school in Britain cerebrating Derek Jarman]. The students play recorders with a piano alongside. This year they accompanied ‘Our Gang’ in Dogs of War (1923) and ‘Baby Peggy’ in Carmen, Jr. (1923).

There were also screenings specifically dedicated to the citizens. On the final Sunday the Verdi screened Chaplin’s The Kid this time with the orchestra under the baton of Maestro Gunter Buchwald. There was also an event for the citizens of Sacile where the Festival spent many years whilst the new Verdi was constructed. The Zancanaro Theatre hosted one of the films from the Reginald Denny programme of the Festival; What Happened to Jones (1926). This is an excellent combination of slapstick and farce and enjoyed a score written and composed by Juri Dai Dan with the Zerorchestra Partitura.

Both sets of audiences are fairly well behaved, but, even here at a specifically cinema event we have some ne’er-do-wells. The occasional mobile phone goes off: people actually text in the auditorium: actually light up tablets: and, whilst, one can understand using a phone as a torch in the darkness, some wave it about like a searchlight. The Festival would benefit from m ore frequent and more emphatic warnings; seen only occasionally before events.

A quiet moment for Reception staff

The staff and volunteers of the Festival are very good. One worker in the reception admitted to being worn out after registering all the guests and handling their queries. And, unfortunately, this year the staff at the Verdi had to assist when one unfortunate guest collapsed and had to be wheeled by out by medics: he has recovered. Most of the guests are in a good condition despite the demands of a fairly heavy programme of screenings. The staff receive a special thank you on the last night. Jay Weissberg [Festival Director] admitted it was not possible to list all the staff and volunteers who care for the festival-goers. I suggested perhaps we could have a ‘photo-montage’ of staff. There is already one for the recipients of the Jean Mitry Award, a prestigious honour given en annually. This photo-montage also means that every year we hear Aaron Copland’s beautiful ‘Fanfare for the Common Man. So perhaps readers could consider an equally appropriate piece of music for a ‘Fanfare’ for the hard-working staff.

The Jean Mitry Award is one of the special event s in the Festival. Past years have seen the honour awarded to some of the major luminaries of Silent Film study, preservation and presentation. This year the two recipients were Margaret Parsons who has for a long period organised the film programmes at the National Gallery in Washington DC; and Donald Crafton who wrote and taught key works on early animation.

Also this year one of the students from the David Selznick Film School presented the work for the Haghefilm Selznick Fellowship. This was a 1912 Russian Pathé film, the second part of 1812 (The Retreat From Moscow). This was a fine 18 minute 35mm print with excellent tinting. We watched Napoleon as he suffered the travails of the Russian winter and Russian resistance. Though the real suffering was reserved for the French soldiers, cut down by Cossacks, hacked down by serfs and savaged by wolves.

In between and alongside these events were a series of programmes which I shall return to discuss in greater detail. They included the early films of William S. Hart; the finest exponent of the western in early Hollywood. There was Hollywood star Reginald Denny, not that well-known these days but very popular in the 1920s. We had early stars of French cinema and a rang e of short films from Weimar Cinema. And we had a series of ‘flip-books’ painstakingly transferred to photographs and animated  for projections. All of these enjoyed musical accompaniments both from the orchestras and from a talented team of musicians, mainly on the piano, but supplemented by the violin, accordion, percussion and the human voice.

We also met and chatted to old friends and colleagues: wrapped up well for the start and enjoyed warmer sunshine for the end of the week; and, as space and time allowed, indulged in the excellent Italian cuisine. The whole week offered enough pleasure to return in 2020 when we are promised more Westerns.

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