Sunday, October 09, 2011

A 30th anniversary of discoveries in Pordenone: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, 2011

Since the reign of the silent feature film lasted only 17 years, from 1913 until 1929, it is amazing that a silent film festival, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, is still able to present substantial new discoveries every day on its 30th anniversary year.

Many friends of the Giornate have expressed wishes that famous films might be reconsidered or repeated for the benefit of young generations. The festival's response, the "Canon Revisited" project, has been an unpredictable mix of rediscoveries and surprises. This year's selection consisted of Asphalt (1929), Joe May's darkly glistening street film, Borderline (1930), Kenneth Macpherson's experimental feature film starring Paul Robeson, The Circus (1928), Charles Chaplin's least often screened silent feature, El Dorado (1921), Marcel L'Herbier's perhaps most charming avantgarde film, Hintertreppe / Backstairs (1921), Leopold Jessner and Paul Leni's chamber piece based on a Carl Mayer screenplay, Klostret i Sendomir / The Secret of the Monastery (1920), a nocturnal Victor Sjöström chamber play, and Oblomok imperii / A Fragment of an Empire (1929), Friedrich Ermler's unusual revolutionary account.

In his catalogue introduction to the "Canon Revisited 3" Paolo Cherchi Usai publishes research results of a "FIAF archival canon" based on our silent film holdings, interesting to study for all of us. Paolo also celebrates the work of the FIAF Cataloguing Commission as our silent film register, Treasures from the Film Archives, is about to reach the landmark of 50.000 preserved titles. In 1988 the count was only 15.000 titles. Many archives are not participating yet...

There were two Pordenone sequels to last year's unorthodox Soviet discovery series. The tribute to the FEKS (The Factory of the Eccentric Actor) included a live cinema event of The New Babylon (1929) with the original score by Dmitri Shostakovich performed by FVG Mitteleuropa Orchestra and conducted by Mark Fitz-Gerald. The new arrangement makes much more sense of the avantgardistic music than the ones we have been used to hearing. There was also an incredible newly recorded video interview with Raisa Garshnek (101) who had screen tested for The New Babylon and who had hand painted the flag red in Battleship Potyomkin.

Full of noble surprises was the Georgian retrospective. Ivan Perestiani's The Case of Prince Tariel Mklavadze's Murder (1925) was an ardent account of feudal injustice. Nikoloz Shengelaya's Eliso (1928) invited us to identify with the proud Chechen villagers oppressed by the Czarist empire. Lev Push's Amerikanka (1930: the name refers to a printing press) emphasized the factual details in the underground revolutionary story. Shalva Kushikivadze and Lev Push's Mzago and Gela (1930 / 1934) juxtaposed tradition and modernity with original touches not yet crushed by Stalinist conformism.

The "Kertész before Curtiz" retrospective included representative samples from the European career of the 66 films of the Hungarian director who became known as Michael Curtiz. In the Napoleonic drama The Young Medardus (1923) based on a play by Arthur Schnitzler and set in Vienna he already showed a sense of world history besides which the private love intrigue begins to resemble "a hill of beans". The discovery of Lily Damita, whom he married, obviously electrified Curtiz in the elegant The Plaything of Paris (1925) which was fortunately screened in its worldly, unmelodramatic version. A more realistic aspect of Lily Damita was on display in Fiacre Nr. 13 (1926), designed by Paul Leni, and resembling the visions of Paris by Jacques Feyder.

An especially well curated retrospective was "The Race to the Pole" programmed by Bryony Dixon and Jan Anders Diesen to the centenary of the conquest of the South Pole. We saw Roald Amundsen's South Pole Expedition (1912) shot by Amundsen himself and lovingly restored by the National Library of Norway. The magnificent British feature films South – Sir Ernest Shackleton's Glorious Epic of the Antarctic (1919) and The Great White Silence (1924, on the R.F. Scott expedition) were seen in wonderful restored colour prints from the BFI. There were surprise polar expedition movies from New Zealand and Japan, too.

This year's Japanese theme was "The Birth of Anime: Pioneers of Japanese Animation" with new subtitled prints provided by The National Film Center of The National Museum of Modern Art of Tokyo, and curated by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström. So many newly rediscovered movies were included that they require a reassessment of the history of anime (and animation). The most remarkable titles included Tomu Uchida's The Tale of Crab Temple (1924), and Sanae Yamamoto's Ubasuteyama (1925, about the habit of the elderly being left on a mountain to die). A science fiction surprise was Shigeji Ogino's A Day after a Hundred Years (1933) in which WWII and nuclear power are foretold. The final trip to Mars fails because "there is a spirit from the past on board"!

There was an unbureaucratic approach in Pordenone's tribute to the 150th anniversary of the Italian Risorgimento. Francesca Bertini was seen in full diva mode in Il veleno delle parole / The Poison of Words (1913), La serpe / The Snake (1920), and most audaciously in Febo Mari's Maddalena Ferat (1921). There were funny ladies, too, and perhaps a bit of bunga bunga. Pina Menichelli starred in Una tragedia al cinematografo (1913) which its name notwithstanding is a farce about the romantic uses of the darkness of the cinema. Gigetta Moreno starred in Mario Caserini's Santarellina (1912), regarded as Italy's first sophisticated light comedy, and in Eleuterio Rodolfi's Le acque miracolose / The Miraculous Well (1914) with a Renoiresque solution to the problem of childlessness.

National Film Preservation Foundation's dvd box set "Treasures 5: The West" was celebrated by selected screenings. One of the best shows of the year was the one which started with Deschutes Driftwood (1916), a scenic short from a hobo's point of view, haunting like a Jimmie Rodgers song. But that was just for starters. The feature presentation, The Lady of the Dugout (1918), directed by W.S. Van Dyke, was a totally unorthodox Western based on the true story of the actual outlaws Al and Frank Jennings playing themselves.

Ned Thanhouser introduced the Edwin Thanhouser show and his website where the 56 surviving Thanhouser films are accessible online. Edwin Thanhouser produced 1000 films and burned all the negatives as he finished his business. For 25 years Ned Thanhouser has been collecting the surviving legacy.

The rediscovered footage of The White Shadow (1924) directed by Graham Cutts and assisted by Alfred Hitchcock, found in The New Zealand Film Archive and restored at the Academy Film Archive, made big news, and reading the capsule synopsis of the missing reels caused big laughs. Even more amazingly the first British fiction film, The Soldier's Courtship (1896) by R.W. Paul, has been restored by Cineteca Nazionale – Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. An even more frank and funny display of passion than Edison's May Irwin Kiss from the same year.

The Jonathan Dennis lecture was given by the dynamic duo of Lobster Films, Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange, as great showmen as they are film restorers. The focus was deservedly on the hand-coloured version of Le Voyage dans la Lune, the restoration event of the year.

Among the musical highlights were Günter Buchwald conducting the orchestra San Marco, Pordenone to Charles Chaplin's score to The Circus and the final gala event with Carl Davis, himself, conducting FVG Mitteleuropa Orchestra to his magnificent score to Victor Sjöström's The Wind (1928).

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