Sunday, October 14, 2012

My highlights in Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (Pordenone, 2012)

This year Le Giornate del Cinema Muto was at its best, with discoveries every day, either unknown / forgotten / neglected works, or new and better versions, prints or presentations. This is mildly incredible, as the heyday of the silent feature film lasted only 16 years, and the GCM has been going on already for 31 years. These are years of maturity at the GCM, the complex machine working very well thanks to the dedication of the great festival team. Promisingly, children (Striking a New Note) and young newcomers (the Collegium) keep emerging as gray panthers fade away.

Selig Polyscope 1-4. Curated by Andrew Erish, an important retrospective covering a major motion picture company. William Selig established the first movie studio in Los Angeles and launched the first Western series with real Native Americans and actual cowboys, most importantly Tom Mix. Selig also established the jungle adventure genre, using footage actually shot in Africa and building a zoo of his own, which became the first movie studio theme park. In partnership with W.R. Hearst Selig produced the first successful American newsreel. Selig also was a pioneer of longer and more complex narratives: among fiction films, The Coming of Columbus was the first 3-reel movie distributed by General Film in America; The Adventures of Kathlyn (believed lost), the first action-adventure serial produced in America; and The Spoilers, the first 2-hour fiction feature film made by an American producer. In Selig's movies, Kathlyn Williams became the first American action heroine and serial queen in jungle adventures; also a convincing Queen Isabella in the Columbus epic. (This summary based on the introduction by Andrew Erish). -- I was struck by the audacity of the vision of society in these "on the road to Hollywood" movies. Columbus is brought back to Spain in chains because he has failed to provide enough gold for Queen Isabella. The West is really wild in Selig's movies, and so are the North (The Spoilers) and the South (the Panama of Ne'er-Do-Well). The breakdown of justice is total in the Alaska of The Spoilers where law and order can be bought, and fair-playing gold-miners are evicted from their lucrative claims just like that. -- Interesting is the recurrent figure of the strong woman, in all the Kathlyn Williams movies, and also in the Tom Mix Western Legal Advice, where civilization is represented by a female attorney. -- The art of film direction and flair in cinematic expression is not particularly highly developed in the movies produced by Selig. Selig had strong concepts, he found good material and exciting performers, but a truly irresistible cinematic drive was missing in the films he produced.

Opening Gala Concert Les Aventures de Robinson Crusoe (Georges Méliès) - Maud Nelissen's quartet: the joy of music to a newly discovered full version of a major Méliès movie made soon after Le Voyage dans la Lune (but perhaps not as inspired as it).

Opening Gala Concert The Patsy (King Vidor / Marion Davies) - Maud Nelissen and FVG Mitteleuropa Orchestra. A delightful and warmly humoristic score in good synch with the bright comedy which picks up in inspiration towards the ending, including Marion's funny series of parodies of Hollywood stars.

Prostoi sluchai / A Simple Case (Vsevolod Pudovkin). A major Pudovkin movie I had never seen before, as strong as his most famous works, and exploring new ground, although there is a great unsolvable problem in the fundament (the mediation between the political and the private is not really worked out). As a work of visual poetry it is superb, a movie about encountering the shock of the new. There are shots with starkly reduced composition, extreme close-ups cropped in surprising ways, lyrical passages of nature, blitz montages of war and urbanity, and enigmatic images. Devices include slow motion, reverse motion, and time lapse. The railway station sequence has montages that are indistinguishable from abstract avantgarde. The keyword is ellipsis. And there is a sense of something inscrutable, sinister, and uncanny going on beyond the optimistic hurrah facade.

German Animation, 1910-1930, 1-2. Curated by Annette Grosche, an excellent series of animations, mostly commercials, done in such an irreverent way that the attitude to the message of the miraculous might of the commodities can be seen as an intentional parody. Some of the animations are famous pieces by Ruttmann, Reiniger, et al., but the others have often an equally high quality, making this a treasury of discoveries. I have never seen better prints of these movies.

Striking a New Note 2012: Concert of the orchestras of children of Pordenone and Cordenons playing to We Faw Down and Liberty (Laurel & Hardy / Leo McCarey). The children's playing had a special feeling of delight and determination. For instance there was a memorable touch in the way they played "The Star Spangled Banner" to the opening of Liberty (Washington... Lincoln... Laurel and Hardy in striped clothes running for their life, chased by the police).

Anna Sten discoveries, curated by Peter Bagrov: Zemlya v plenu / The Earth in Chains (Fyodor Ozep): oppressed by big land-owners, the young mother forced to serve the landlord's family; Torgovtsky slavoi / The Merchants of Glory (Leonid Obolenski): the first Marcel Pagnol film adaptation, a satirical concept worthy of Capra and Sturges; Provokator / Agent Provocateur (Viktor Turin): the first movie of both Turin and Sten, a tragedy of student rebels haunted by stool pigeons and agents provocateurs of the secret police; Stürme der Leidenschaft (Robert Siodmak): Anna Sten together with Emil Jannings in a movie prefiguring film noir (the French version Tumultes starred Charles Boyer and Florelle).

"Oh! Mother-in-Law!": curated by Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi, an inspired show of early comedies based on the oldest joke in the world (according to James Frazer and Margaret Mead even jungle tribes know it). My favourites: La Garçonnière de Rigadin (D: Georges Monca), Finalmente soli (D: Ernesto Vaser), and The Making Over of Mother (P: Al Christie).

Zvenigora (Aleksandr Dovzhenko). Used to seeing our nonlinear, nonsensical Helsinki print it was a revelation to see this linear, easy-to-follow print from Vienna.

The Jonathan Dennis Memorial Lecture: David Sproxton. Insights in the secrets of animation revealed by one of the major figures in Aardman Animation. "Do we see what we believe or do we believe what we see?": reflections on the art of illusion and the psychology of visual perception dedicated to the memory of Richard Gregory. "The uncanny valley": ROBOT - ANDROID - HUMAN. We accept a doll, a robot, a matchstick man, and a cartoon figure as figures of fantasy and artifice. But if we move towards greater photorealistic illusion, we land into the uncanny valley where imitation starts to feel disgusting.

The Spanish Dancer (Herbert Brenon / Pola Negri): newly reconstructed and restored, a magnificent print of the Paramount version of the Victor Hugo story simultaneously filmed by Ernst Lubitsch for Mary Pickford as Rosita. A fine romantic adventure story, and an exhilarating guitar-flavoured live music performance.

Moi syn / My Son (Yevgenii Cherviakov / Anna Sten). Pyotr Bagrov has resurrected the memory of a major Russian director, Yevgenii Cherviakov, whose entire legacy was destroyed during the siege of Leningrad - until a print of Moi syn emerged from Museo del Cine Pablo Ducrós Hicken (Buenos Aires) which also gave us the complete Metropolis. Stark, laconic images, and performances which are forceful without exaggeration.

Seminar: Torkell Sætervadet: Are You Ready for Digital Projection? The Norwegian author of the projectionist's bible has now written a digital update, forthcoming in November 2012. Six main reasons to be cheerful for D-cinema: 1. Colour range. 2. Bit depth. 3. Virtual losslessness. 4. Consistency. 5. Content. 6. Cost (prices now rapidly coming down, next generation projectors only cost a third of the recent ones). Problems covered: resolution (4K recommended, it does not get better than that in projection), archival frame rates (already acknowledged but not yet implemented), sound (beware of white papers), 3D (a lot of light needed), DCP problems (keep them SMPTE compliant), how often do you need a new projector: every 10 years; warranty packages are expensive but essential.

A.W. Sandberg's Charles Dickens adaptations: screened in Pordenone's Charles Dickens retrospective this year: Vor fælles Ven / Our Mutual Friend, Little Dorrit, Stora Forventninger / Great Expectations. Not shown this time: David Copperfield. Having seen Sandberg's Great Expectations and David Copperfield before I was aware that they have probably been conscious or unconscious models for David Lean's and George Cukor's later, definitive sound film adaptations of the novels. Of equally high quality was Our Mutual Friend, with a fine sense of the uncanny in a story which might have been a good subject for Alfred Hitchcock in his The Lodger mode. I look forward to seeing Little Dorrit another time.

Jenseits der Strasse / Harbour Drift (Leo Mittler).  Much stronger than I remembered, a masterpiece of urbanity, the account of the stream of consciousness no less impressive than what Joyce and Woolf were doing, with an acute sense of the contrast between reality and illusions.

Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre: Visions animées des artistes célèbres. A magnificent reconstruction in colour and with sound partly from the original sound cylinders, partly reconstructed perfectly live by John Sweeney. An essential showcase of the performing arts and their greatest artists during la Belle Époque, made for the Paris World's Fair in 1900. An unforgettable evening.

Die freudlose Gasse / The Joyless Street (G.W. Pabst): The first screening of a new colour print of the latest Munich restoration from sometimes heartbreakingly duped sources. The magnificent feeling of the epoch and the society enhanced by the full detail and the care taken with the images, all part of a vital, organic, vibrant whole.

Late Thanhouser: A Modern Monte Cristo, Fires of Youth (Émile Chautard / Jeanne Eagels) In true Thanhouser fashion there is a plain, sober, and mature approach to the storytelling regardless of how wild the plot turns may be. Jeanne Eagels in one of her earliest film roles gives a natural and realistic performance.

Premio Jean Mitry: Pierre Étaix - his silent acceptance speech.

Closing Gala Concert A Woman of Affairs (Clarence Brown / Greta Garbo) - music composed and conducted by Carl Davis, inspired by Franz Liszt, played by FVG Mitteleuropa Orchestra. The bestselling novel The Green Hat turned into a tragedy of the lost generation, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. dying of alcohol, Greta Garbo speeding towards death, yet protecting the honour of her loved one with dignity, John Gilbert in an understated role. Clarence Brown is in full command as a silent cinema storyteller. The Carl Davis score is refined.

MOVIES I MISSED AND LOOK FORWARD TO SEEING ANOTHER TIME: Oliver Twist (1922, Frank Lloyd / Jackie Coogan, Lon Chaney), The Corrick Collection Vol. 6, Little Dorrit (A.W. Sandberg), The Viking (Technicolor), A Tale of Two Cities (Frank Lloyd, 1917), The Only Way (Herbert Wilcox, 1926).

GREAT MOVIES I HAD SEEN BEFORE AND SKIPPED THIS TIME: The Goose Woman, Devushka s korobkoi / The Girl with the Hatbox, Hands Up!, Die Weber / The Weavers, La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, Great Expectations (A.W. Sandberg).

This year for the first time archival 2K DCPs were screened in Le Giornate del Cinema Muto: Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre (from prints with a special Parnaland perforation), Provokator (from Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Kiev), and two A.W. Sandberg movies from the Danish Film Institute in Copenhagen (Our Mutual Friend, Little Dorrit). The change is not abrupt since we have seen prints of classic movies made via digital intermediates since the 1990s.

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