Saturday, October 09, 2010

Notes on Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Anno 2010

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (president: Livio Jacob, director: David Robinson) offered heavyweight programming at Teatro Comunale Giuseppe Verdi in Pordenone despite the current challenging economical circumstances.

The Canon Revisited project was continued into its second year. During the first decades, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto was about "canon busting" to quote a comment by Jan Christopher Horak. Now the canon is apparently being embraced, but more fundamentally, Le Giornate now is even more about a radical questioning of film history. Now Paolo Cherchi Usai lists five types of Canon to consider, namely, national, auteurist, temporary, pioneers and scholarly canons. With an approach like this we can count on healthy and never-ending disagreements.

Included in this year’s Canon Revisited selection were Drifters (GB 1929), John Grierson's film that launched the British documentary movement, Il fuoco ([Fire], IT 1915), Giovanni Pastrone's femme fatale vehicle for Pina Menichelli, Hævnens nat ([The Night of Revenge], DK 1916), Benjamin Christensen's visually stunning thriller, Jim Shuante / Sol Svanetii (SU 1930), an early masterpiece from Mikhail Kalatozov, Le Miracle des loups / Miracle of the Wolves (FR 1924), Raymond Bernard's first historical epic, Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück / Mother Krause's Journey to Happiness (DE 1929), Piel Jutzi's moving study of proletarian Berlin before Hitler, and the Monica Flaherty music version of Moana (US 1926) seen as a tantalizing video preview for a hopefully forthcoming restoration.

Pordenone's third Japanese retrospective was dedicated to three masters of the Shochiku studio, Yasujiro Shimazu, Hiroshi Shimizu, and Kiyohiko Ushihara, all essential in the development of the Shochiku studio style and the Japanese cinema in general, all practically unknown in the West. Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström in their programme notes talk about "Kamata modernism" as a common denominator to the style which tells realistic urban stories via "melodramatic narratives and florid visuals". Tokyo's National Film Center and Shochiku had done a remarkable job in producing 35 mm prints with English subtitles of the three masters. Japan's pre-war film heritage was left in shambles many generations ago, and today's enthusiastic audiences have to endure the bitter challenge of seeing prints where the original visual quality of the film can sometimes be barely guessed despite superb restoration expertise.

Hiroshi Shimizu, later to become known of his films about children, was seen as a master of elegic, melancholic stories with visual flair (Minato no Nihon musume / Japanese Girls at the Harbor, 1933) and melodramatic haha-mono (mother films) (Tokyo no qiyu / A Hero of Tokyo, 1935).

Of the influential Yasujiro Shimazu the selection emphasized social engagement. Reijin / The Belle (1930) is a passionate drama relevant to women's rights. Many of the Shochiku films were very long. The four-hour Ai yo jinrui to tomo ni are / Love, Be With Humanity (1931) started as a bitter satire of alienation in the world of big money, develops into a lumberland epic which culminates in a forest fire on the Sakhalin Island, turns into a tragedy of King Lear dimensions and managed to amaze the blasé Pordenone audience with a happy end in the Wild West.

Kiyohiro Ushihara was known as "sentimental Ushihara", and his films often starred the athletic Denmei Suzuki with the teenager Kinuyo Tanaka, the future muse of Kenji Mizoguchi. There is in his films a delight in modernity, the power of the press, the vitality of the young, and fast motor vehicles. The air force drama Shingun / Marching On (1930) was interesting to see in the same week as Wellman's Wings, one of its inspirations. Also on display was Wakamono yo naze naku ka / Why Do You Cry, Youngsters? (1930), the final, dark film of the Denmei Suzuki-Kinuyo Tanaka cycle, which Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano has seen as an example of "the anxieties and disturbance of modernity in interwar Japan".

Three Soviet masters were on display in the Shifting Fortunes retrospective dedicated to Abram Room, Mikhail Kalatozov, and Lev Push. All had to suffer from ideological suppression, all examples of the Stalin era "crippled creative biographies" to use Herbert Marshall's expression.

Abram Room is best remembered from the wonderful Tretya Meshchanskaya / Bed and Sofa (1927) and Privideniye, kotoroye ne vozvrashchayetsya / The Ghost That Never Returns (1930). In Pordenone, a many-sided talent was revealed. The stark ship mutiny drama Bukhta smerti / Death Bay (1926) remained in its time in the shadow of Battleship Potyomkin. The surviving reels of Predatel / The Traitor (1930) revealed an interest in design which resulted in charges of formalism. The short settlement story Yevrei na zemle / Jews on the Land (1927) boasted witty intertitles by Viktor Shklovsky and Vladimir Mayakovsky. Shklovsky was a major Room collaborator in his other silents, as well. Room had a long life, but his projects were hampered to the extent that in the end he felt he had had no career.

Mikhail Kalatozov had his final breakthrough as a film director first in the Soviet thaw era with The Cranes Are Flying (1957). Also highly regarded but little seen was the silent Kulturfilm Jim Shuante / Salt for Svanetia (1930) included in the Canon Revisited selection. Pordenone arranged now the first-ever retrospective of Kalatozov's silent films in his native Georgia. He was a scenarist and cinematographer in Giuli (1927), the passionate tragedy of a woman in a society dominated by patriarchal tradition, directed by Lev Push and Nikolai Shengelaya, and Boshuri siskhli / Gypsy Blood (1928), a tale of forbidden love among Romanian Gypsies, directed by Push. Two reels of Kalatozov's debut film as a director, the agit-prop film Mati samepo / Their Kingdom (1928), believed lost, have been found in 2008, and they reveal a sharp satirical attitude to the always topical question of oil power games. Lursmani chqmashi / The Nail in the Boot (1931) confirmed that the young Kalatozov was already a real man of the cinema. His penchant for low angles, dynamic composition, large views, the wide open sky, and striking montage was all already here, but "formalism was now a permanent stigma upon him" to quote Nino Dzandzava’s programme notes.

French Clowns 1907-1914, A–Z, curated by Eric Le Roy and Fereidoun Mahboub from the collections of Les Archives Françaises du Film (CNC), was an inspired six-part survey to a remarkable era in the history of comedy and the history of French cinema. The tribute grew into a counterpart to Pordenone's The American Comedy Series retrospective in 1994. There were the great stars such as Max Linder and André Deed, and Onésime, the favourite of the Surrealists. Behind the stars there were directors such as Gaumont's Roméo Bosetti and Jean Durand, comedy visionaries before Mack Sennett and Hal Roach. There were child stars from Bébé to Willy and funny ladies from Cissy to Tartinette. Many of the restored AFF versions looked good, and although this kind of viewing is not ideal for comedy shorts meant to be seen singly, many titles stood out, for example Boireau en mission scientifique (1912) which comedy experts were quick to divine as a possible inspiration for the opening film of the festival, Buster Keaton's The Navigator. My favourite was Calino chef de gare (1912), a witty example of the catastrophe principle so dominant in these pre-WWI comedies.

The Early Cinema section was dominated by the fourth edition of The Corrick Collection, preserved by National Film and Sound Archive, Australia, with two delightful shows displaying a cross-section of the touring programmes more than a hundred years ago, from Edison to Pathé, from tragedy vignettes (Pauvres vieux, FR 1907) to multi-coloured Segundo de Chomón fantasmagoria (Les Fleurs animées, FR 1906). The Madagascar show (Louis Tinayre, FR 1898) was presented with authentic Malgache songs. The Vincenzo Neri medical films (IT 1908-1928) were reminders of the scientific value the cinema had from early on, successors in their naked force to Marey, Muybridge and the Black Maria period of Edison. The Silence of the Amazon documentaries from Cinemateca Brasileira were unanimously admired. The first one, Rituaes e festas Borôro (1916), was fascinating, and the others reportedly even better.

There were several rediscoveries from the masters. A Thief Catcher (US 1914, from collector Paul Gierucki) has been missing even from Charles Chaplin filmographies, but there he was as a bumbling Keystone Kop. Upstream (John Ford, US 1927) had been repatriated from the New Zealand Film Archive and the beautiful print on display was better than most of the ones seen this year in Bologna's Ford retro. The smooth satire on the theatre people was an example of Ford’s many-sided professionalism without recognizably personal touches. Robert Wiene's comedy Die Waffen der Jugend (DE 1912, print from EYE Film Institute, Amsterdam) was an assured debut film. F.W. Murnau's Marizza (DE 1922, print from Cineteca Nazionale, Roma) was a tantalizing fragment from a Carmen-like story, Murnau’s sense of composition impressively in evidence.

Lenny Borger had compiled a series of French "Making Of" documentaries from the 1920s, from films such as La Roue, L'Argent, and Les trois mousquetaires, proving that the template for the contemporary dvd extras was created already then. Pordenone paid tribute to the 75th anniversaries of two film archives of the foundation period: in New York (The Museum of Modern Art) and London (the present BFI National Archive). Laura Minici Zotti's farewell magic lantern show was a display of elegance and dignity. A musical delight was the Striking a New Note show with orchestras of the schoolchildren of Pordenone and Sacile. Henri Rabaud's original score to Le Miracle des loups was heard in a piano arrangement by Touve R. Ratovondrahety: I look forward to a full orchestra presentation. A highlight of the Festival was Alberto Cavalcanti's Rien que les heures (FR 1926) in a beautiful colour print from EYE Film Institute and with Yves de la Casinière's original score arranged and played by Maud Nelissen with brio with her trio. A definitive experience of the city symphony that inspired Walther Ruttmann.

The Jonathan Dennis lecture was given by Sir Jeremy Isaacs, the visionary British television and opera executive. His topic was Kevin Brownlow whose groundbreaking Hollywood tv series (GB 1980, 13 episodes with David Gill) and the life-long reconstruction project of Abel Gance's Napoléon inspired the global silent cinema revival. The lecture was an illustrated Photoplay production, and the closing event was another Photoplay production, William Wellman's Wings (US 1927), the magnificent Carl Davis score performed by Orchestra Mitteleuropea and conducted by Mark Fitz-Gerald. Kevin receives an Academy Honorary Award in November 2010, after Henri Langlois the second master of film preservation to do so. It elevates the status of the Academy.

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