Monday, October 14, 2013

Pordenone: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, 5-12 October, 2013

Hans engelska fru (1927) Movie poster 70x100cm B Gustaf Molander/Gösta Ekman/Einar Nerman art

I like the sense of adventure in Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, prominent in this year's edition.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto has always had the ambition of rewriting film history. It achieved that goal long ago, already during the first ten years of its existence. The most amazing thing now is that it still keeps going on with the same ambition level, presenting so many great discoveries, not resting on its laurels, not repeating itself, although there is now a new generation of GCM aficionados who were not even born when the festival started.

The 32nd Giornate del Cinema Muto was thus not based on the tried and true but on the unexpected and the unknown, with a good balance between works of real substance and flights of fancy.

The age of the silent film lasted 35 years, but the period of the silent feature film lasted only 17 years. Even contemporary cinemagoers could not know how magnificent the achievements of the cinema were globally. Pioneering historians from Paul Rotha to Georges Sadoul, Jean Mitry, Jerzy Toeplitz and Rune Waldekranz did not have the wide access to the treasures that we have now. A young film historian of today is in a privileged position to assess film history thanks to festivals such as the Giornate del Cinema Muto.

Essential to the GCM experience is the catalog, written by the best experts, and offering new information in each chapter. Full of interesting insight, and a great pleasure to read. It is available online on the festival website.

UKRAINE. Ivan Kozlenko's introduction made new sense for me of the Ukrainian film phenomenon. Such classics of the Soviet film as Zvenyhora, Arsenal, Earth, Man with a Movie Camera, The Eleventh, and Spring were significantly Ukrainian films which could not have been made elsewhere. Shown now were other great but less known films such as Nichnyi viznyk / The Night Coachman by Heorhii Tasin, and Shkurnyk / The Opportunist and Khlib / Bread by Mykola Shpykovskyi. For the first time I saw Alexander Dovzhenko's Sumka dipkuriera / The Diplomatic Bag, a wild and crazy exercise. I look forward to seeing Borotba veletniv / The Struggle of Giants by Viktor Turin and Dva dni / Three Days by Heorhii Stabovyi another time.

SWEDEN. Jon Wengström's focus was on the last years of the silent cinema in Sweden. There was then an ambition towards the international market with urban and pan-European themes, and foreign screenwriters and actors were hired to achieve that goal. Of his selection I had only seen Ivar Johansson's masterpiece Rågens rike / The Kingdom of Rye before. I finally got to see another masterpiece, Alf Sjöberg and Axel Lindblom's justly famous Den starkaste / The Strongest. Karin Swanström's Flickan i frack / The Girl in Tails is a suave humoristic tale based on a screeplay by Hjalmar Bergman. Gustaf Molander was the director most prominently on display. Polis Paulus' påskasmäll / The Smugglers is a contender for the all time best comedy starring Fyrtornet och Bivognen (Fy och Bi / Pat and Patachon). Hans engelska fru / His English Wife starring Lil Dagover and Urho Somersalmi is a curious mix of quintessential Swedish countryside drama and urban high society drama set in London. The film includes a rapid-shooting sequence which we Finns decided was the most terrific we have ever seen in the cinema. Förseglade läppar / Sealed Lips starred an enchanting Mona Mårtenson in an Italian drama about a novice who gets to decide between life and monastery. Synd / Sin was based on the play Brott och brott / Crime for Crime by August Strinberg, starring Lars Hanson, Elissa Landi, and Gina Manès, but a happy end had been substituted to the original tragic one by Molander's current screenwriter Paul Merzbach, whose work in my opinion was far from the level of Molander's own achievements as a screenwriter. It was exciting to see Anthony Asquith's Swedish version of A Cottage on Dartmoor, Fången n:r 53, shot by the master Axel Lindblom, significantly different in structure. Finally, there was a key Swedish transitional film from the silent to the sound cinema, expertly restored by the Swedish Film Institute, Konstgjorda Svensson / Artificial Svensson by Gustaf Edgren.

LAMPRECHT. Gerhard Lamprecht was a survivor, managing to make films with dignity in the many changing political circumstances of Germany, becoming a pioneering archivist and filmographer as an important sideline. His cycle of realistic Berlin films from the late 1920s was screened in newly restored versions. I saw the restored Die Verrufenen / The Slums of Berlin, Die Unehelichen / Children of No Importance, and Menschen untereinander / [People among Each Other], and look forward to seeing Unter der Laterne / Under the Lantern later. A Deutsche Kinemathek 50th Anniversary tribute programme with solid program notes by Rolf Aurich and Wolfgang Jacobsen.

ANNY ONDRA became a film actress in Czechoslovakia in 1919, and soon she was a part of a creative team which included the director-screenwriter-actor Karel Lamac, the cinematographer Otto Heller, and the screenwriter Vaclav Wasserman. From the Anny Ondra series I saw Gilly poprvé v Praze / [Gilly in Prague for the First Time], Dama s malou nozkou / [The Lady with the Small Foot] (the delightful introduction), Setrele pismo / [The Missing Letters], Chyt'te ho! / [Catch Him!], and [The Anny Ondra sound test for Blackmail]. I seem to have made the wrong choices and missed the best films of the retro, films such as Prichozi z temnot / Redivivus, Drvostep / [The Lumberjack], and Lucerna / [The Lantern]. A Národní filmový archiv 70 programme, the general introduction written by Briana Čechová.

THE CANON REVISITED 5. Paolo Cherchi Usai had selected stunning films for reappraisal: William Wellman's Beggars of Life, Vsevolod Pudovkin's Mat / Mother (this I didn't watch this time, nor the Alexander Rasumnyi adaptation Mat / Mother, which I had also seen before), Lupu Pick's Scherben / Shattered, and Viktor Turin's Turksib [this we have screened ourselves this year].

ANIMATION: FELIX THE CAT, KO-KO THE CLOWN. Every day was bookended with masterpieces of animation. The days started with Otto Messmer's Felix the Cat animations, and they ended with "Goodnight Ko-Ko" selections from the Fleischer brothers. I saw all the Felix movies and none of the Ko-Ko films, being a morning person who cannot help being prone to falling asleep after nine in Italian time (ten pm. Finnish time).

ANIMATION: SOVIET SILENT ANIMATION. Sergei Kapterev and Peter Bagrov introduced to us the first-ever retrospective of silent Soviet animation. The greatest masterpiece, one of the most remarkable animations of all times, was Pochta / Mail by Mikhail Tsekhanovski, based on the screenplay by Samuil Marshak.

ITALIAN REDISCOVERIES. I saw Enrico Guazzoni's comedy Il gallo nel pollaio / [A Rooster in the Henhouse] and look forward to seeing later Guido Piacenza's Viaggio in Congo / [A Voyage in Congo], Eleuterio Rodolfi's I promessi sposi / [The Betrothed], Giuseppe Di Liguoro's Giuseppe Verdi nella vita e nella gloria (1813-1913), Giulio Donadio's Giorgio Gandi, and Mario Roncoroni's Ironie della vita / [Irony of Life].

JOLY-NORMANDIN. A super collaboration, for a long time in preparation, was the international co-production of restoring Joly-Normandin films from 1896-1897,  based on Coleccao Joan Anacleto Rodrigues (Cinemateca Portuguesa), Coleccion Antonino Sagarminaga (Filmoteca Española), Fonds Joly-Normandin (Musée suisse de l'appareil photographique, Cinémathèque Suisse), British Cinématographe Company (BFI National Archive), Normandin (Archives francaises du film du CNC), Lobster Films, Cinémathèque francaise, and Svenska Filminstitutet, all this curated by Camille Blot-Wellens. A remarkable archeological feat in the field of very early cinema.

THE CORRICK COLLECTION 7. The Corrick Family was a troupe of singers, entertainers and film presenters from New Zealand who toured widely in Southeast Asia and England in 1898-1915. Their remarkable film legacy has been restored with loving care by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. I have been a big fan of these shows from the beginning, and now we saw the final screenings, 19 short films altogether this year. The program notes of Leslie Anne Lewis make sense of these early short films in the best way, both for their cinematic significance and for the implications of culture, history, and society. An exemplary way to treat early cinema. On display was beautiful print quality of well-known films often seen in horribly battered copies (The Lonely Villa by D. W. Griffith) and colour-driven féeries in amazingly preserved colour (La Fée aux pigeons / The Pigeon Fairy by Gaston Velle and Segundo de Chomón).

MEXICO. Dr. Aurelio de los Reyes has compiled a three-part, six-hour chronicle of early Mexican cinema and history. I saw the beginning, 43 short films by Lumière, Edison, Salvador Toscano, and los Hermanos Alva / The Alva Brothers. I realized that this is an indispensable source for a student of Mexican cinema and history with "the longest, and the most violent political revolution of the 20th century, and the first to be extensively chronicled on film" (Aurelio de los Reyes).

TOO MUCH JOHNSON. Stranger than fiction: Orson Welles' lost pre-Citizen Kane film was found last year in Pordenone. I was certainly not the only one to think that there must be a practical joke here somewhere, but the incredible story seems true. The world premiere was, appropriately, in Pordenone. The silent footage was shot by Mercury Theatre for prologues to be used in their theatrical production of William Gillette's comedy Too Much Johnson, but the plan was rejected after the film had been shot and rough-edited. Paolo Cherchi Usai narrated live the projection of the work print screened as it was found, transferred onto safety film. The visual quality was mostly fine. Too Much Johnson does not make sense in itself, but in the Mercury Theatre context the discovery is invaluable. Aspects of Welles's visual sense (but not his mastery) are already in evidence. Too Much Johnson is a spoof full of the joy of play. They had fun, and so have we.

THE BLACKSMITH. Another surprise discovery, via Argentina, Fernando Peña alerting Lobster Films: the first version of Buster Keaton's The Blacksmith which was only released in France, and includes scenes missing from the generally known version (scenes such as Buster's lighting-fast proposals during a chase, and a break during that same chase to watch the silhouette of an undressing woman). This earlier version makes more sense as a narrative.

ICHIRO KATAOKA IN A BENSHI PERFORMANCE. A benshi (a talking live explainer of a film show) of a new generation performed for three shorts and one feature, a first screening outside Japan of Jiro Kawate's Fukujuso / The Scent of Pheasant's Eye, a tale of love between women.

THE CLOSING GALA was a film concert to Harold Lloyd's The Freshman with Carl Davis conducting his own brilliant score, played by FVG Mitteleuropa Orchestra at a strength of 40-50 players. I like the moment of self-revelation and started to think about the autobiographical symbolism of the story. Harold Lloyd also started by imitating others but found greatness by being himself.

REDISCOVERIES. Der geheime Kurier / The Mysterious Messenger, Gennaro Righelli's adaptation of Le Rouge et le Noir, starring Ivan Mosjoukine and Lil Dagover, did no justice to Stendhal but was a piece of splendid adventure entertainment. Vasili Zhuravliov's Kosmicheskii reis / Cosmic Voyage was a fine science fiction discovery, well made and humoristic, also a piece of light entertainment.

PORTRAITS. Musidora, la dixième muse by Patrick Cazals, and Natan - the Untold Story of French Cinema's Forgotten Genius, by David Cairns and Paul Duane. Both new documentaries have lasting value.

STRIKING A NEW NOTE. My perennial favourite show in Pordenone is where the schoolchildren of Pordenone and Cordenons play to silent comedies, this time to two Our Gang films, No Noise and Crazy House, the later starring Jean Darling, present at 91 years, and performing at the festival. I hope these children live as long as Jean Darling, building a bridge of two centuries of living memory.

Some of the Gerhard Lamprecht and Gustaf Molander movies from the late 1920s seemed too slow and long, perhaps because too fast a speed had been avoided, but it would be interesting to know how long the screenings were at the time of the original release.


Pamela Hutchinson in Silent London, ten articles, 5-13 October, 2013
Pamela Hutchinson in The Guardian, 14 October, 2013
Jay Weissberg in Variety, 22 October, 2013
Ivo Blom in his blog, 21 October, 2013
Wellesnet on 9 and 14 October, 2013, on Too Much Johnson
David Cairns on Mubi Notebook, 30 October, 2013, on Too Much Johnson
Daniel Fairfax in Senses of Cinema, December 2013, 18 Dec 2013

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