Sunday, October 11, 2009

Pordenone Notes 2009


LE GIORNATE DEL CINEMA MUTO. Associazione Culturale "Le Giornate del Cinema Muto". Presidente: Livio Jacob. Direttore: David Robinson. Comitato direttivo: Paolo Cherchi Usai, Lorenzo Codelli, Piero Colussi, Luciano De Giusti, Carlo Montanaro, Piera Patat.

THE CANON REVISITED. Last year, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto brought to a finish the largest ever retrospective dedicated to a single film artist: The Griffith Project. Also last year, the 30th anniversary of the Brighton Symposium gave an opportunity to reassess the whole amazing phenomenon of the rediscovery of the silent cinema. In this, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto has played a central role. With foresight, Le Giornate has been also activating new generations with a Collegium, masterclasses and Striking a New Note projects. So far, Le Giornate has been rigorous in focusing on the unknown or the forgotten. A new project called The Canon Revisited is a turning-point for many good reasons. Not only the new generations but also veteran film scholars have never seen many central works of film history on screen or at all. Apparently for instance Boris Barnet's brilliant NEP satire The House on the Trubnaya (1928) was a revelation to most. Myself, I had never before seen Mario Camerini's Rotaie (Rails, 1929), which invites comparisons with the best contemporary visions of modernity (Murnau, Hitchcock). Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923) was seen in the George Eastman House restoration complete with the Handschiegl effects. On display of Paul Wegener's Der Golem (1920) was a Lumière Project print obscured by heavy tinting. Mauritz Stiller's Gunnar Hedes saga (1923) was seen as a newly completed restoration from Cinemateket / Svenska Filminstitutet with added intertitles helping to make more sense of the film from which a lot of footage is missing. Carl Dreyer's Du skal ære din hustru (The Master of the House, 1925) is still a biting women-empowering satire in the spirit of Ibsen's The Doll's House. The most magnificent restoration feat was of Abel Gance's angry and muddled reckoning with the Great War, J'accuse (1919), from Nederlands Filmmuseum and Lobster Films, for which Stephen Horne played an inspired solo piano for three hours.

FILMS ALBATROS. The tribute to Films Albatros, established in France by Russian emigrants after the Russian Revolution, was arranged together with La Cinémathèque française. There Renée Lichtig reconstructed luminous prints with access to the original negatives in the 1980s, and now there were also fresh 2009 prints from digital intermediates and with strong tints. The series was a continuation to the great tributes to Ivan Mosjoukine, René Clair, etc., in which the most celebrated Albatros films have already been shown. La Nuit du 11 septembre (1920) was an over-the-top melodrama starting on the battlefield of the Franco-Prussian war. In Viatcheslav Tourjansky's films his wife Nathalie Kovanko gave strong performances. Their Le Chant de l'amour triomphant (1923) was a poetic erotic vision based on an untypical short story by Turgenev. In their La Dame masquée (1924) Kovanko gives an especially many-sided performance. In Jacques Feyder's ambitious Carmen (1926) the popular singer Raquel Meller gives one of the best interpretations of the immortal seductress in film history. In Jakov Protazanoff's Justice d'abord! (1921) Ivan Mosjoukine and Nathalie Lissenko remake powerfully their roles from a story they had filmed already in Russia. The best comedian of the team was Nicolas Rimsky. Ce cochon de Morin (1923) is a farce based on a short story by Maupassant. In L'heureuse mort (1924) Rimsky plays a dual role as a playwright believed dead and as his brother, a missing African explorer. In the Albatros version of the often-filmed Le Chasseur de Chez Maxim's (1927) Rimsky plays the doorman-souteneur who leads a double life as the master of a castle. – Personally, I found no immortal masterpieces in this selection, but on display was a great sense of style, cinematography, and design. The cinematographer Joseph-Louis Mundviller and his colleagues played a brilliant role as masters of their craft. And in the history of art direction the Albatros team has a secure place with talents such as Alexander Lochakov and Lazare Meerson. – As for the new prints, we are in a transitional period with a fashion for heavy tinting. Certainly the films were usually originally tinted and toned. One problem that cannot be solved, however, is related to the fact that the prints were originally struck directly from the negative on nitrate stock. We can never see luminous prints like that again, but we can try our best to pay justice to the vision of the artists. Matters of taste are inevitably involved. Personally, I would appreciate maximum luminosity, good contrast, the finest possible grayscale and attention to detail. For them, I would sacrifice colours gladly.

SHERLOCK AND BEYOND: THE BRITISH DETECTIVE IN SILENT CINEMA. Based on Laraine Porter and Bryony Dixon's British crime series at the British Silent Cinema Festival Jay Weissberg had compiled an extensive and revelatory retrospective. Eille Norwood was the definitive Sherlock Holmes in British silent films. On display were the fatal ending in the episode The Final Problem (1923) and the feature produced after it, The Sign of Four (1923, directed by Maurice ElveyI. The Danes and the Germans were the first to launch Sherlock Holmes film series. Der Hund von Baskerville (1914), was seen in a recently reconstructed version from Munich. The first work of Richard Oswald for the cinema, here as a screenwriter, was directed by Rudolf Meinert. The hilarious double disguise sequence between the villain and the sleuth was worthy of Feuillade. Films based on Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu-Manchu stories were screened as they feature the indefatigable Nayland Smith on his mission to rescue humanity from the Yellow Peril. Stories such as the episode The Fiery Hand (1923) are not only racist but also sadistic with devices such as "the six gates of joyful wisdom". – Siegfried Kracauer found it interesting that the detectives in the several German series that were popular even during the Great War were always Englishmen and never German. The Striped Domino (Der gestreifte Domino, 1915) belongs to the Stuart Webbs series of feature-length films. – In an ambitious survey like Sherlock and Beyond it is also an important result to realize what is missing. According to Weissberg, all films belonging to the popular series featuring Sexton Blake and Bulldog Drummond have disappeared. Also almost all silent films based on the stories by Edgar Wallace have vanished. – Outside this series in Pordenone was screened, however, a Wallace film without a private detective, The Four Just Men (1921), with a disquieting storyline about terrorism in the name of righteousness.

MUSIC EVENTS. The Opening Event was a splendid musical performance to Erich von Stroheim's The Merry Widow (1925). Maud Nelissen had created a special score, half Lehár, half Nelissen. The blend was seamless in the tender and vibrant performance of Orchestra Mitteleuropea and Merima Kljucom. – Another highlight was this year's Striking a New Note performance with the children of Pordenone and Cordenons playing Béla Bartók to The Playhouse (1921) and jazz to A Night at the Show (1915). With teachers like Emanuela Gobbo and Maria Luisa Sogaro these performances, full of joy, are an inspiration to everybody. – The magnificent Carl Davis score to the Photoplay restoration of The Eagle (1925) was played back from tape. In the Valentino vehicle Alexander Pushkin's tale from the age of Catherine the Great turns into an entertaining swashbuckling parody. – A special programme in the tribute to the British Silent Festival, The Sound of British Silents, presented a full range of fascinating samples, most amazingly the first film record of Aboriginal Australians, Torres Straits (1898), complete with tribal music restored from contemporary wax cylinders. A suite of films related to Ballets Russes documented dancing at its most brilliant, with the original music selections specially reconstructed for the event by John Sweeney. The Final Event was the surrealistic Ukulelescope, with The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, produced by Hester Goodman, playing to some 25 short films, including titles such as Quicker Than Thought Movements, Jiujitsu for the Ladies and Le Pied de mouton. – Understandably producing specially prepared music for each film would be impossible for practical reasons. I was grateful that John Sweeney recognized the theme music, Gounod's Faust waltz, in his performance to Gunnar Hedes saga. – I failed to discover the idea, in the interpretation of Touve Ratovondrahety, reportedly from Ernesto Halffter's original score, to Jacques Feyder's Carmen, a film, which could surely need a boost from some passionate music... – Le Chant de l'amour triomphant and Eine versunkene Welt would deserve special attention as they are films in which the power of music is essential to the narrative. In the music to the Sherlock Holmes films I would welcome the acknowledgement of his violin-playing, music being an essential dimension of Sherlock's logical mind.

JUGOSLOVENSKA KINOTEKA AND EARLY CINEMA. Belgrade's Jugoslovenska Kinoteka / The National Film Archive of the Republic of Serbia presented a wonderful 60. anniversary programme, in which the late silent feature Sa verom u Boga (In God We Trust, 1932) deserves a presence in world film histories. It starts with bucolic scenes in the countryside, interrupted by the events following the shots of Sarajevo. Among the shorts from Belgrade were exciting samples from Luigi Maggi, Oskar Messter, Segundo de Chomón, and J. Searle Dawley. – From the Australian Corrick Collection was screened for a third time in Pordenone a selection of restored titles based on the vintage prints preserved from the collection of the Corrick family that toured with them a hundred years ago. The many-sided programmes served also as an introduction to early cinema, from non-fiction (La Métallurgie au Creusot) to the féerie (La Belle au bois dormant). The selection, the restoration and the programme notes by Leslie Anne Lewis were first-rate. – A special suite of short views, starting in 1896, was restored from one of the earliest Italian pioneers, Italo Pacchioni, by the Fondazione Cineteca Italiana in Milano. – In The Screen Decades programme five seminal shorts were viewed, including a Western (Broncho Billy's Christmas Dinner, 1911), an episode from The Perils of Pauline (1914), and Winsor McKay's magisterial The Sinking of The Lusitania (1918), which could merit study by today's animators.

FURTHER PLEASURES. The most brilliant print of the Festival was Der Fürst von Pappenheim (The Masked Mannequin, 1927), the definitive Curt Bois vehicle with the legendary double-cross-dressing scene. Asta Nielsen, Pola Negri and Francesca Bertini were at the top of their game in recently restored prints and fragments of their films. The samurai story Kurotegumi Sukeroku (1929), restored from 16mm, featured a furious swordfight finale. Eine versunkene Welt (The Vanished World, 1922) turned out to be an important Alexander Korda discovery about a disillusioned "Red Prince" whose nobility of spirit is not repayed by the dancer he loves and the crew whom he submits all power. The Rose of Rhodesia (South Africa 1918) is an exciting discovery representing the white settlers' viewpoint. On Strike (1920) is an anti-trade-union animation with a brilliant matchstick-man parody "by Mutt and Jeff" who try it without Bud Fisher.

Amazingly, on a silent film festival, it is still possible to have a guest who was a star at the time. Jean Darling, the popular child star of the 1920s, was happy to attend the events. Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, the daughter of John Gilbert and Leatrice Joy, opened the screenings of The Merry Widow and The Ten Commandments, starring her parents. Maud Linder, the daughter of Max Linder, received The Jean Mitry Award.

Edith Kramer gave a memorable Jonathan Dennis lecture on programming. For the second year, there were electronic subtitles in English and Italian to all films at Teatro Verdi. They greatly help make sense of films which are often incomplete and hard to understand. The standard of the programme notes was high, and good reading was provided, among others, by David Robinson on Albatros, Jay Weissberg on Sherlock Holmes, and Leslie Anne Lewis on the Corrick Collection. The evening shows were so full that I was lucky to find a seat, often only at the pipe rack, chez les enfants de paradis.

P.S. 19 April 2011: A much better review of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (2009) was written by Michael Walker for Movie, Issue 1 of the online revival edition, published in October 2010.

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