Sunday, October 13, 2019

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Afterthoughts

38th Pordenone Silent Film Festival – Poster. Marion Davies on the set of Beverly of Graustark (1926) by Sidney Franklin. Photo by Ruth Harriet Louise. Graphic processing: Giulio Calderini, Carmen Marchese. Credits: Margaret Herrick Library – Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles / Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.

Festival: 38. Le Giornate del Cinema Muto / Pordenone Silent Film Festival, 5–12 ottobre 2019. Associazione Culturale "Le Giornate del Cinema Muto". Direttore: Jay Weissberg. Locations: Teatro Verdi and Cinemazero, Pordenone.

Catalog: 38. Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Catalogo / Catalogue: Pordenone: 5–12 ottobre 2019. Bilingual: Italian and English. Edited by Catherine A. Surowiec. Pordenone: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, 2019. 325 p.

This year's Le Giornate del Cinema Muto was a showcase for several intelligently curated series and programs of short films such as "European Slapstick", "Nasty Women", "Films on Film", "Weimar Shorts", "Flipbooks", "Musée Albert-Kahn" and Amsterdam's Desmet show. There were also great special screenings such as the film concerts of Fragment of and Empire and The Lodger, and the benshi performance of Chushingura. A major retrospective of William S. Hart's early years confirmed that he was a master of the cinema since the beginning.

Much I missed but I could not have digested more. It took me more than two months to finish my blog remarks. We live in a golden age of the silent cinema revival, reflected in the high quality of the catalogue introductions, musical interpretations, bilingual translations and the overall polish and professionalism of the presentations and arrangements.


Programming short film comedies is difficult because the films were meant to be shown singly. But in a festival dedicated to film history we want to see them in compilation shows.

Ulrich Rüdel and Steve Massa solved the dilemma in the "European Slapstick" section of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. The series was built on connections and revelations, based on the concept of transatlantic interaction. Charles Chaplin was not included in the series proper, but The Kid was the opening gala selection, and the connection was made clear to Max Linder, Chaplin's model and inspirer.

We saw an early Linder comedy, Au music-hall, based on a Fred Karno sketch which Chaplin much later filmed as A Night at the Show. Further up on the road Chaplin's success in turn encouraged Linder to more serious work such as Le petit café. Together with Abel Gance the comedian even ventured into horror territory: Au secours!

Jewish comedy was on display in Der Stolz der Firma in which Ernst Lubitsch plays a variation of his familiar brash upstart go-getter character. Steve Massa compared Not Guilty! starring Charles Puffy (Károly Huszár) with Kafka.

Watching an early Lupino Lane comedy, The Blunders of Mr. Butterbun, thoughts inevitably wandered to Brexit. The film is not good by any measure, but in Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi's Twins programme a Lupino Lane masterpiece was seen: Hello Sailor, in which Lupino stars with his brother Wallace.

Starring in the series was also Walter Forde, Britain's only film comedian in the 1920s. In Wait and See, Britain's first feature-length comedy vehicle for a star, Forde appears in his Walter character, comparable with Harold Lloyd.

There was a rare chance to compare cinema's first three comic duos. Apparantly the earliest one was Czech: Cocl and Seff. From them we saw Cocl als Hausherr, based on a sketch by Arthur J. Jefferson, the father of Stan Laurel. The same sketch also served as the basis for Duck Soup (1927) which revealed Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy for the first time as a comedy team.

Laurel & Hardy are the cinema's – arguably all comedy's – most enduring team. But the Danish duo Pat & Patachon (Fy & Bi) started earlier, their films were still re-released in cinemas in the 1980s, and they remain in tv and home distribution to this day. I had only seen truncated versions of their films before and considered them just "poor man's Laurel and Hardy". Seeing finally uncut original versions such as Filmens helte [Heroes of the Screen] in this festival and Polis Paulus påskasmäll / [Constable Paulus's Easter Crackers] six years ago makes me realize that I need to reassess Fy & Bi.

"The Return of the Nasty Women" programmes curated by Maggie Hennefeld and Laura Horak, subtitled "Tyranny at Home" and "Discipline and Anarchy", consisted mostly of comedies. Many were farces of destruction in hyperbole mode. The most memorable entries were in more subtle register. The sisters Rosa and Henny Porten starred in the German Belle Époque comedy of manners Wem gehört das Kind? The French La Peur des ombres builds suspense via shadowplay. The best was saved for the last: Le Charme de Maud in which the heroine has to conceal her charm to avoid harassment.


The "Films on Films" series curated by Dimitrios Latsis focused on different countries in four shows. A highlight in the "Evolution of Hollywood Studio Tours" show was a visit to the Thomas H. Ince studios, including glimpses of the private life of the founder himself. The film was also interesting in the William S. Hart context, although Ince and Hart had parted ways by 1920 when this film was made. Another highlight, also relevant for Hart, was Sprockets and Splices from Paramount.

The French show, titled Histoire(s) du Cinéma, contained three important films, beginning with Raoul Grimoin-Sanson's inside view from the early years, relevant to the archaeology of the cinema. From Julien Duvivier and Henry Lepage we saw the remaining sections of their legendary history of the cinema called La Machine à refaire la vie. From another future master, Pierre Chenal, we saw the beautiful industrial documentary Une cité française du cinéma.

In Weimar Film Tales two sides of German silent cinema were present. In the surviving fragment of Der Film im Film we see Fritz Lang, Robert Wiene, Henny Porten, Asta Nielsen, Conrad Veidt and E. A. Dupont in action. Die Wunder des Films exposes the encyclopaedic variety of the Kulturfilm: from eagles' nests to chemical reactions... the whole range of the visible world.

The last installment of the series brought us ten films from Britain and Canada, starting with William Friese-Greene's funeral and Will Day's seven-part film series of his collection. The final entry, a spoof called What's Wrong with the Cinema, consisted entirely of intertitles. In each of the four shows the pioneer status of the respective country was promoted. Stephen Horne parodied the jingoism by pounding "Rule, Britannia!" on the grand piano.


Curated by Michael Cowan and Anton Kaes, the "Weimar Shorts" series invited us to examine a rich variety of neglected aspects of the golden age of German cinema. Contributing to the excellent program notes was Anke Mebold.

"Nature and the Elements". The golden age of nature films is now, thanks to digital photography. But the Weimar masters were already great in time lapse photography, mountain films, polar exploration adventures and microbiologic films, and they had film species of their own such as Kulturfilm and Querschnittfilm, all on display in the first show of the series. Full of a sense of wonder and a privileged approach to the sublime.

"Work and Leisure". The second Weimar Shorts programme had an emphasis on artists: the puppet master Lotte Pritzel, Otto Dix at the height of his Expressionistic period, and Lola Kreutzberg the documentary explorer, here recording Javanese shadowplays, dances and orchestras. There was also a tale of a lady film editor suffering from hangover... and seeing the Dadaistic results of her day's work on the giant screen of the Ufa-Palast.

"The Social Question".  The programme of the greatest gravity was The Social Question. On display were the key directors Ernö Metzner, Wilfred Basse, Slatan Dudow and Werner Hochbaum (Phil Jutzi's Blutmai 1929 was missing: we look forward to seeing it later). Something had to change in the society, and there were still real alternatives. These images grow with the years, whether classical observations (Markt in Berlin), experimental montages (Überfall) or open propaganda (Zwei Welten).

"How To Be Modern". The last installment focused on modernity. It opened with the avantgarde classic Kipho, a film on film. Die Frankfurter Küche promotes modernity in the heart of the home. Der Rundfunk auf dem Lande extols the virtues of the radio at the farm, keeping track of pork prices and storm warnings and bringing the joy of music to everybody, including animals. Unsichtbare Kräfte is a Kulturfilm about electricity. There were even animations: Der verkannte Schatten recommends more light to the kitchen, and the Lustige Hygiene series gives advice about the common cold and using hot temperatures in laundry to prevent contagion.


Showcasing early cinema is a mission in which Pordenone excels. The Flipbooks series was an elegant novelty: presenting early cinema via digital transfers of flipbooks, curated by Thierry Lecointe and Robert Byrne. The Musée Albert-Kahn programme, curated by Teresa Castro and Anne Sigaud, was a revelation of dignity and grandeur, with a promise of more to come. Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi's Desmet shows are my favourites. This time there was only one: Desmet Collection 2019 Show: Twins ranging from W. K. L. Dickson to Vitaphone, from Lois Weber to the Sisters Guy.


As usual, I skipped the most important films and evening gala shows because I'm a morning person and at 20.30 when the lights go down my irresistible reflex is to sleep. But I saw the experimental screening of Murnau's Faust with the original intertitles by Gerhart Hauptmann. I understand why they were not used, but it was a privilege to see the masterpiece differently for a change. Marion Davies was the poster girl of the Festival, and I'm a fan, eager to see more of her early work. Beverly of Graustark is bright and funny, but a bit hollow for my taste. The great comedian Reginald Denny was presented by his granddaughter Kimberly Pucci; there was big fun in the film concert What Happened to Jones? with Juri Dal Dan's sparkling score played by Zerorchestra.

In the film concert Fragment of an Empire we heard one of the greatest ever vintage silent film scores: Vladimir Deshevov's futuristic music performed by Orchestra San Marco, Pordenone, conducted by Günter Buchwald, based on an arrangement by Daan van den Hurk. The definitive experience of a bold classic.

Another game-changing experience of a well-known classic was the film concert The Lodger. Neil Brand caught brilliantly Hitchcock's "sound of suspense" in his original score which was performed by Orchestra San Marco and conducted by Ben Palmer.

To a handful of the festival's greatest highlights belonged also the benshi screening of Chushingura. Ichiro Kataoka was the benshi, performing with the musicians Ayumi Kamiya, Yasumi Miyazawa and Masayoshi Tanaka. I walked out after the first fifteen minutes. Crazy! Indeed, but this was a superlong day with hardly a break due to a force majeure incident in the morning. Anyhow even judging by this short sample I knew that this was the best benshi performance I have ever visited, and I look forward to another chance.


Curated by Richard Abel, Diane Koszarski and Richard Koszarski, "William S. Hart, Knight of the Trail" was a major retrospective of the silent cinema's greatest maker of Westerns. The retrospective focused on Hart's first four years as a film-maker – from 1914 till 1917 – with one film added from the year 1918. Hart had his breakthrough with Ince, mature since the beginning, reaching almost immediate global superstardom in tandem with Chaplin, establishing an influential "strong silent man" character and building a Western corpus only comparable with John Ford. From the start there was a command of the mise-en-scène and the symbolic charge of the landscape. Hart's cinematography is consistently elegant and austere, and the cameraman is often Joseph H. August, the link between Hart and Ford. Hart is a familiar and beloved figure in the Pordenone and Bologna festivals, but there were quite a few new rediscoveries in the retrospective including In the Sage Brush Country, The Aryan, The Gun Fighter and Wolf Lowry.

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