Sunday, October 11, 2015

The 34th Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, 3-11 October, 2015

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For the last time David Robinson, director of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto since 1997, uttered the words "welcome home" in his opening speech in Pordenone. He has steered the festival through stormy waters, including the biggest ordeal of having to move away from Pordenone to Sacile in 1999-2006. The financial situation has become more difficult, yet no compromises have taken place in the artistic approach of the ambitious festival whose mission is nothing less than rewriting film history. A new generation of silent film aficionados is now attending Le Giornate whose basis is sound from the viewpoint of audience commitment. The Pordenone audience gave a warm welcome to the new director, Jay Weissberg, who immediately started sharing responsibilities with David.

The festival was dedicated to Jean Darling (1922-2015) who until her death was Pordenone's resident star, the penultimate surviving member of Our Gang. In a recently taped performance we saw and heard her singing "Always".

The Jonathan Dennis Memorial Lecture was a tribute to Naum Kleiman from Moscow, one of the great personalities of film culture since the 1950s. One of Naum's mottoes: "the film begins when it ends". It then becomes a subject for further research, debate, analysis, contemplation, even a part of our life. For facilitating such a process Pordenone is fertile ground. The main content of the event was a screening of Cinema: A Public Affair (DE 2015), a portrait of Naum Kleiman by Tatiana Brandrup.

THE 120TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE CINEMA. In recent years in Pordenone we have seen marvellous programmes of restorations of difficult formats (Parnaland, Joly-Normandin) and reconstructed programmes of early cinema exhibitors, most prominently the multi-year Corrick Collection program from Australia. In the same highest level of identification, restoration and reconstruction we now saw two wonderful shows of the pioneer exhibitor Antonio Sagarmínaga in Coleccion Sagarmínaga from Filmoteca Española curated by Camille Blot-Wellens. It was a beautiful way to celebrate the 120th anniversary of the cinema with classic and less known samples from Lumière, Méliès, Warwick, Gaumont, Pathé, Chomón, and Parnaland. From Leopoldo Fregoli, the international superstar of quick transformations, was shown a new and complete digitally restored set (2015 AFF/CNC). Fregoli's remaining film heritage stems from 1897-1899 and he has been claimed to be the first film star (but my candidate would be Georges Méliès).

THE HIDDEN BIG CENTENARY. In previous times The Birth of a Nation would have been celebrated in a year like this; instead, there was a counter-celebration to the groundbreaking film whose racism we condemn, most importantly in the tribute to black artists under the title Bert Williams and Company. There was a special resurrection event of the first all-black American feature film Lime Kiln Club Field Day (US 1913). Uncle Tom's Cabin (US 1914) was the first mainstream American film with a black actor in a leading role (Sam Lucas), based on the most filmed novel during the silent era (there never was a sound version in Hollywood). Besides there was the most prominent film adaptation (US 1928) of the novel Ramona, "the second most important 19th century American social protest novel after Uncle Tom's Cabin", about Ramona's love story with a Native American in Southern California, starring Dolores Del Rio. D. W. Griffith had played the Native American in a stage production, and he had also directed a pro-Indian adaptation of the novel, starring Mary Pickford.

CHANGING THE WORLD was another hidden theme of the festival. Uncle Tom's Cabin belongs to the novels that have changed history. Another great tale which survived on Leo Tolstoy's shortlist after his fundamentalist "What Is Art" conversion was Les Misérables seen as the Pordenone centerpiece in its French 1926 film adaptation directed by Henri Fescourt in a majestic 6½ h version which I know well in glorious black and white and look forward to see another time in its newly restored colour edition. Revolutionary scenes were seen not only in it and in Sergei Eisenstein's October (SU 1928) but also in William Wauer's amazing Der Tunnel (DE 1915), one of the discoveries of the festival, and also in Douglas Fairbanks's first period feature film, The Mark of Zorro (US 1920), an incitement to revolt against tyranny. Social consciousness was also on display in Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi's special programme Children at Work where especially Jeux d'enfants (FR 1913, D: Henri Fescourt, supv: Louis Feuillade) resonated strongly, also with Les Misérables with its Cosette theme. Life has changed since in Europe and North America, but not for the majority of the people of the world.

THE GREATEST TALES OF MANKIND: to those quoted above let's also add the epic legends of the Troyan war revived in Manfred Noa's Helena - der Untergang Trojas I-II (DE 1924) with a panache comparable with Lang and Murnau and with a sense of gravity stemming from the unhealed pain from the recent WWI. And Sherlock Holmes (US 1916, starring William Gillette), an impressive record of a legendary interpretation which even influenced Arthur Conan Doyle himself.

IL CENTENARIO DELLA GRANDE GUERRA is a multi-year theme in Pordenone. This time I saw remarkable non-fiction films by Luca Comerio from 1916-1917, interesting for a Finnish viewer as records of winter war. Those films happened also to confirm that even in Maciste alpino (IT 1916) the Alpine war footage has a partly documentary quality. Year by year it gets clearer that WWI was the tragic turning-point in the silent era of the cinema, dividing it into la Belle Époque, the war years, and the post-traumatic shell shock period. (I would count even The Phantom of the Opera, US 1925, seen as a Photoplay film concert as the closing gala and starring Lon Chaney as the horribly disfigured Erik, as a shell shock film, using the term of Anton Kaes). Even Zane Grey was affected: The Call of the Canyon (US 1923, the remaining fragments of whose film adaptation were seen here) is the story of the rehabilitation in the West of a deeply disturbed war veteran.

THE CANON REVISITED 7 was again the backbone of the week. These are films that deserve to be revisited as often as possible. Det hemmelighedsfulde X (DK 1914) confirmed that Benjamin Christensen was a master of visual storytelling ahead of his time. Marcel L'Herbier's L'Inhumaine (FR 1924) in its new Lobster colour restoration made the best sense ever for me of this visionary constructivist Gesamtkunstwerk. The Mark of Zorro (US 1920, a Douglas Fairbanks vehicle directed by Fred Niblo) I had never seen before. Engrossing. (Also screened during the festival were Victor Fleming's brilliant Fairbanks vehicles When the Clouds Roll By and The Mollycoddle which I skipped this time. Still fresh in memory was also last year's restoration of the exhilarating The Good Bad Man, directed by Allan Dwan and shot by Victor Fleming). Sergei Eisenstein's October (SU 1928) can inspire many thoughts; about the tragedy of history, certainly, but also about the new concept of the time and space continuum in the centenary year of the general theory of relativity; Einstein and Eisenstein had something in common. Ernst Lubitsch's Die Puppe (DE 1919), a humoristic fantasy in the spirit of E. T. A. Hoffmann, I did not see this time. Graham Cutts's The Rat (GB 1925) was a new discovery for me, starring the androgynous Ivor Novello, and proving that Hitchcock still had a lot to learn from his mentor, including in the approach to a crucial rape / murder scene.

VICTOR FLEMING: I skipped familiar titles such as Mantrap and was grateful to see the tragic Zane Grey film adaptation To the Last Man (1923) starring Lois Wilson and Richard Dix and based on a true story of carnage in old Arizona, with James Wong Howe catching the sublime of the landscape. The passion between Gary Cooper and Lupe Velez in Wolf Song (1929), about the coming of age of a mountain man through love, is so convincing that it feels like a personal confession by the director.

RUSSIAN LAUGHTER: delightful discoveries were on display again in this series. The selections also made us rethink our received notions on Soviet culture. Can't You Just Leave Me Out? (1932, Viktor Shestakov) was amazingly revealing about the conditions of life in "real existing socialism". The State Official (1931) was an exercise in grotesque and eccentric satire on contemporary (not Czarist) bureaucracy by a future canonical Stalinian director, Ivan Pyriev. Aleksei Popov's Three Friends and an Invention (1928) is simply delightful in its sense of freedom (and was a favourite of Henry Miller's). As is the obscure A Bell-Ringer's Film Career (1927, Nikolai Verkhovskii), a meta-filmic student film parody which remains fresh and funny today.

BEGINNINGS OF THE WESTERN is a new series in which I was happy to see early films by G. M. Anderson, Allan Dwan, Thomas H. Ince, and Francis Ford. There was a focus on Indian pictures (remarkable: The Post Telegrapher, 1912, directed either by Thomas H. Ince or Francis Ford) and strong Western women (also a specialty of Zane Grey's). I do hope that this series will be continued. Since reading William K. Everson's book on the western a long time ago I have been looking forward to see as many of these early films as possible.

LIVE FILM MUSIC has never been better in Pordenone, thanks to Neil Brand, Frank Bockius, Günter A. Buchwald, Philip C. Carli, Mauro Colombis, Antonio Coppola, Mark Fitz-Gerald, Stephen Horne, Ian Mistrorigo, Maud Nelissen, José Maria Serralde Ruiz, Donald Sosin, John Sweeney, Roman Todesco, and Daan Van Den Hurk, as well as special orchestras. There was a new level of richness in the musical accomplishment - or this was the year when I realized it. Special musical delights included the charming Tonbilder show (DE 1907-1909), Antonio Coppola's original humoristic score to Ernst Lubitsch's Romeo und Julia im Schnee (DE 1920) played by Octuor de France, and a benshi performance of a new restoration of Daisuke Ito's Chuji tabinikki (JP 1927) by Ichiro Kataoka and the Otowaza ensemble.

Much I missed. Not to be forgotten: the continuing excellence of the program notes in the catalog and the high quality of the translations.

The theme song for me of this year's Le Giornate: Dolores Del Rio sings the original version of the theme song of the motion picture Ramona, destined to become an evergreen, recorded even in distant Finland by dozens of popular singers.

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