Sunday, July 05, 2009

Summing up Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna, 2009

Artistic director: Peter von Bagh. Advisory board: Nico de Klerk, Gian Luca Farinelli, Nicola Mazzanti, Mark-Paul Meyer, Peter von Bagh. Festival coordinator: Guy Borlée.

The Year of Many Centenaries: the centenary of film festivals, newsreels, aerial films, Futurism, the film star, the film diva, the Western as a true genre

This was yet another great year for Il Cinema Ritrovato with triple programming. I kept focusing on the offers of the Lumière 1 (silents), paying visits to the Lumière 2 (sound) and the Arlecchino (scope etc.).

For the seventh time the Festival presented a special feature called "A Hundred Years Ago" curated by Mariann Lewinsky. This "festival inside the festival" consisted of 12 shows with over 100 films. 1909 turned out to be a more important year in the history of the cinema than might have been expected. The opening topic was a tribute to the first film festival, organized in 1909 in Milan, with a display of the current notable film companies. A hundred years ago the first newsreels were launched. Serge Djaghilev's Ballets russes were filmed for the only time. The first aerial films were made. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published the Futuristic Manifesto, and Maria Montessori her main works on the education of children, and James Joyce ran the Volta Cinema in Dublin: all these were illustrated by film examples.

In 1909 the film star was born – the famous, popular performer credited on screen and on advertisements. The first film star was apparently the comedian Cretinetti, and the first film diva Stacia Napierkowska. Films got longer, and the evolution towards the feature-length film was evident. In the field of the documentary accounts of production processes were getting refined (records of making rope, producing wigs, fishing).

In France Albert Capellani was an exemplary director, and L'Assommoir, based on the novel by Emile Zola, the tragedy of alcoholism featuring the fates of Gervaise and Coupeau, was one of the high points of the weeks in a new restoration. Henri Bousquet has called L'Assommoir the first French feature film. Film d'Art kept getting established by treating great classic themes, focusing on high quality and developing the language of the cinema. Luke McKernan has introduced the concept "A Cinema of Distractions" into the research of early cinema, referring to the excitement of incidental phenomena visible on screen. Life surprises also the makers of fiction that is being shot on location, and the boundary of fiction and non-fiction are mobile and flexible. In her selections Mariann Lewinsky explored the aesthetics of the incidental in a way that has links with the Realist aesthetics of Béla Balázs, André Bazin, and Siegfried Kracauer.

The year 1909 was an annus mirabilis of D.W. Griffith: 142 films, the quality of which was often high. Tom Gunning in his introductory text highlighted the evolution of parallel editing in suspense, political commentary, and psychological exploration. Griffith's attention to the image, to composition, and lyrical beauty expanded as well. I would add that Griffith was the first film artist to consciously present landscape as soulscape. Unfortunately the quality of the Griffith prints screened was miserable, although negatives exist.

In 1909, before mass tourism, cinema programmes had a global quality, and views from foreign countries were in great demand. In Denmark the year 1909 was the last dominated by short films. In Italy Giovanni Pastrone created historic epics and Cretinetti made people laugh with his comedies. From today's viewpoint the films of 1909 depict a lost world still characterized by sails at sea, washerwomen by rivers, and stray animals on streets. The age of the féerie was coming to an end. Also the high tide of the films with sound on disc was coming to an ebb, as the expenses were not met by the income.

In the USA Vitagraph was going strong. A Midsummer Night's Dream seemed clumsy filmed theatre, but The Tell-Tale Blotter offered crisp cinematic narration. In Selig's repertory the Western was consolidating into a popular genre with films starring Tom Mix. At Essanay, slapstick was evolving. The success of Hiawatha produced by Imp (future Universal) challenged MPPC's monopoly.

A main series, in collaboration with Sony Columbia, was dedicated to the formative years of Frank Capra. I have held the opinion that Capra's true years of mastery start with American Madness, while also his Harry Langdon comedies are great, and there was not much need to revise that opinion. It was certainly evident that Capra was a confident professional from the beginning, capable of shedding conventional entertainment at a brisk pace. From the start he loved the military, and he directed a Marines trilogy (Submarine, Flight, Dirigible). He tried the gangster film (The Way of the Strong) without matching Sternberg. He ventured into the popular Jewish genre (The Younger Generation), but the result was not as heart-rending as Humoresque or The Jazz Singer. The electric spark into Capra was struck by Barbara Stanwyck in 1930; they did five films together. In The Ladies of Leisure there is a new kind, original, hard-to-define, unique spirit, certainly also thanks to the screenwriter Jo Swerling, and the Pre-Code freedom. The visual standards with Capra were always excellent thanks to the cinematographer Joseph Walker. The restauration work, often via 4K digital intermediate, by Sony Columbia, was exemplary.

The Kinojudaica retrospective based on the series mounted by la Cinémathèque de Toulouse and Gosfilmofond was offered much new insight. On display was a drama of a persecuted woman (Vu iz emes), a tragedy of childlessness that offered self-critisism of reactionary Jewish tradition (Gore Sarry), epic accounts of terror, rebellion, and pogroms (Protiv voli otsov), a drama critical of anti-semitism with biting montages (Zapomnite ih litsa), Yevgeni Bauer's tragedy of a heartless climber (Leon Drey), a story of the borderland at the Pale of Settlement (Granitsa), a satire of those who return from the USA to the USSR during the Great Depression (Vozvrashtshenije Nathan Beckera), and Mark Donskoy's shelved Holocaust drama Nepokorjonnye, in which the Babi Jar massacre (mere two minutes in the print viewed) changes the lives of all the protagonists.

World Cinema Foundation had several new high profile restored films on display. The restoration of relatively new films may also be necessary. Screened was the Egyptian Shadi Abdel Salam's El momia (1969), a unique masterwork echoing with eternity. The Taiwanese Edward Yang's four-hour A Brighter Summer Day (1991) is a slow account of coming of age in the Taipei of the youth gangs of the early 1960s, highly influenced by the American pop culture.

The Argentinian-born, Hollywood-based Harry D'Abbadie D'Arrast was one of the razor-sharp masters of style in the 1920s and the 1930s in the spirit of Chaplin and Lubitsch. A Gentleman from Paris is a witty gem starring Adolphe Menjou. Laughter is a bitter comedy, where women marry old millionaires and make love with poor artists.

The tribute to Josef von Sternberg was complemented with two remarkable documentary films. Harry Kümel's Josef von Sternberg, een retrospektieve, includes a long filmed interview with the master a few months before his death, and also "Sternberg's last film", where he lights the face of the actress Dorothée Blank in the same way as he had lit Marlene Dietrich. Bill Duncalf's excellent The Epic That Never Was, familiar from tv, a study on the unfinished Charles Laughton drama I, Claudius, was screened as a 35mm film print. This gave us the opportunity to enjoy a high quality of the image, as the makers of the documentary had access to the negative, and the original footage with editing and definition of light by Sternberg, himself. Almost all Sternberg prints in circulation now, including the most famous restored ones, are, in contrast, duped in many generations.

The young John Ford was seen as an actor in a film of his brother, Francis Ford, The Bandit's Wager. The first artistically ambitious Greek fiction film, Daphnis and Chloe, was screened in a restored version. Claude Autant-Lara's famous, lighting-fast Feydeau comedy Occupe-toi d'Amélie has returned to public viewing after 30 years of hiding.

Lobster Films turned out with high profile special programmes. The authors' rights of Georges Méliès have expired last year, and now his films may be screened by others than members of the Méliès family. Serge Bromberg was the presenter, pianist, and bonimenteur of a great Méliès show. Lobster Films had also edited an impressive study of the unfinished, experimental, cinetic drama of jealousy by Henri-Georges Clouzot, L'Enfer, starring Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani.

As a morning person I missed the great evening spectacles at Piazza Maggiore. Unfortunately I had to skip also Anita Berber, the colour film, Rodolfi and Gigetta, Tutto Maciste, the British 1930s, the Vichy France, Vittorio Cottafavi, almost all Dossiers (Blasetti, Metropolis, Financial Crisis, Cinefilia), and the censorship specials.

The success of the festival was also due to its professional management, warm hospitality, atmosphere of friendship, and the high standard of the notes in its programme catalogue.

I saw also excerpts from many films not mentioned in my notes. Speaking of restorations I feel that 2K is not enough. 4K is needed for 35mm normal image, and 6K for real CinemaScope.
Some high-profile restorations seem to be marketing hype. Well-known quality films, which have been available all the time in good prints, are now re-released in new prints from digital intermediates, but these new prints are not necessarily always better than the familiar ones.

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