On arrival in Pordenone, the city is very much as I expect it: a nondescript small town in northern Italy, centred on its vibrant piazza, with an architectural mixture of 19th century apartment blocks, Fascist-era neo-classical civic monuments, and contemporary “statements” in urban design. That is to say, a pleasant place, but niente speziale. A few days later, however, and my aimless meanderings take me unexpectedly into the old town, with its colonnades, cobblestone streets, Mediaeval cloisters and Renaissance frescoes. As I wander around in these timeworn environs, they appear to sprawl out in every direction; it is seemingly impossible for a district of these dimensions to be nestled within the zone allotted to it by modern-day Pordenone. Uncannily, I feel as if I have stepped into a vortex and been transported into a past world, one that somehow geographically overlaps with its modern counterpart. Just as suddenly, when I unwittingly take a wrong turn, the spell is broken, and I am returned to the present era.
What more perfect allegory could there be for the Giornate del Cinema Muto, which for the last three decades has transformed a corner of this Friulian town into the kingdom of shadows. There are those (the vast majority, in fact) who see silent cinema as an art of the past, as the relic of a historical era whose time has definitively come to an end. But if the Giornate has a mission, then it is to show that there is still life left in silent films, that their inexhaustible fruits can continue to give succour to audiences well into the future. Indeed, the fact that this edition’s opening night gala involved a screening of the 2013 “silent” film Blancanieves is welcome evidence of the continued, albeit furtively subterranean, vitality of l’art muet – but in spite of the rare opportunity for Pordenone to have the director address the audience before a screening, Pablo Berger’s film found a lukewarm response from the silent cinema devotees amassed in the theatre (not to mention the ire of a handful of animal rights protestors discontented with its glorification of la tauromaquia).
Moreover, this year’s festival represents something of a milestone: more time has now elapsed between the first Giornate and its present incarnation than between the first public screening of Lumière films and the premiere of The Jazz Singer (widely seen as ringing the death knell for silent cinema), but in spite of the economic crisis which, strangling southern Europe, has not spared the region’s film festivals, the Giornate shows no signs of perishing. Many of its attendees, arriving from other parts of Italy, Europe, the world, are long-standing guests, making a yearly pilgrimage to this cinematic sanctum, where festival director David Robinson is fond of greeting them with the salutation “Welcome home.” Others, myself included, come here for the first time, drawn by the gushing tones in which the festival is spoken of by its aficionados. All, when, at the insistent ringing of the bells alerting them to the beginning of another session, they cross the threshold into the auditorium of the Teatro Giuseppe Verdi, will be sucked into the same vortex, and conveyed into a parallel universe: one daubed in black and white chiaroscuro tones, whose mute inhabitants communicate to each other by means of title cards and noiselessly move (sometimes too quickly, sometimes too slowly) to the tinkling accompaniment of a live piano.
Upon exiting the cinema, readjusting to the world of sound and colour poses a considerable challenge to the Giornate’s denizens. In fact, it is difficult to conceive of a more perceptually confronting sensory experience than spending a week at a silent film festival, especially one with the relentless intensity of Pordenone’s screening schedule, which is no poor cousin to those of Cannes or Venice. With almost all its main screenings taking place in a single venue, Pordenone is a festival where it is possible to see everything in the program, just as long, quipped Paolo Cherchi Usai (a doyen of the festival irrespective of any official position he may hold), as you only sleep four hours a night.
Above all, however, this year’s festival will be remembered for the world premiere of Too Much Johnson, touted as Orson Welles’ first film. Long considered lost – even by Welles himself, who had spoken of it in rather disdainful terms in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich – Johnson was remarkably rediscovered last year, lurking, as legend would have it, in a film archive in the town of Pordenone itself, after the reels had been mysteriously shipped to Italy in the late 1970s. As Welles enthusiasts jetted in from around the world for the inaugural screening, festival organisers, and the restoration team tasked with bringing the footage up to a projectable condition, nonetheless cautioned against expectations that the film was a missing Citizen Kane. Rather than a feature film per se, Johnson was merely intended as a series of cinematic interludes to a 1938 Connecticut stage run of William Gillette’s 1894 farce of the same name. Moreover, halfway through editing the footage, Welles apparently lost interest in the project – whose seemingly insurmountable obstacles included the fact that the theatre used for the play was unable to incorporate 35mm projection. Left behind, then, is the filmic equivalent of an aborted foetus: clearly shaped and refined in some parts, rough and amorphous elsewhere. As befits the fin-de-siècle setting of the subject matter, Welles decided that the film segments – shot without sound, using silent-era hand-cranked cameras – should take on the air of a Mack Sennett two-reeler: correspondingly, the first, and most tightly edited, part of the film is dominated by slapstick sequences shot on the streets of New York, with Keystone Kops chasing a bumbling Joseph Cotten across warehouse rooftops. Beyond the film’s status as a precious historical artefact from Welles’ early career, it is this section which – with its documentary depiction of the Lower Manhattan locations used for filming (slums and industrial districts which have now mainly been buried by the twin forces of time and commerce), and the occasional baroque camera angle portending the filmmaker’s later formal inclinations – is of most interest for present day spectators. By contrast, the latter part of the film, with palm trees planted in a New Jersey quarry making a risible effort at standing in for exotic Cuba, is far more roughshod, and was correspondingly left by Welles in a much more rudimentary state at the time the work was abandoned.
There remained the question of presenting this footage: 66 minutes in total, whereas the segments filmed were intended to last roughly 40 minutes. The prudent decision was taken to leave the footage in its original condition, and make no attempt to re-edit it into something more comprehensible, which could only have been a highly speculative, and methodologically dubious, undertaking. To give some degree of legibility to the footage, then, a live commentary in English was read out by Cherchi Usai during the screening. Mixing plot description, background information on the project, historical insights into the filming locations and a handful of personal observations, the commentary was a valuable complement to the film sequences, and we can only hope that future presentations of Too Much Johnson handle the material in a similar manner.
While indisputably a silent film, Welles’ work was nonetheless an outlier in Pordenone’s program, whose bread and butter is the prodigious cinematic output of the silent era properly speaking (roughly 1895-1929). Moreover, among film festivals, Pordenone’s curatorial method is as singular as its focus on silent cinema: film archives from around the world submit programming proposals featuring works they have conserved or recently restored, and the festival picks and chooses from among this selection. The result, if this year’s program is anything to go by, is to highlight a stark division in interest in silent cinema, which cuts across the more readily apparent demarcation between archivists and scholars at the festival. On the one hand, there are those whose main interest lies in the “golden age” of the 1920s, when the suppleness of cinematic expression had reached its highpoint (never to be matched again, to tell the truth), and when, with the feature format in the ascendancy, the major film-producing nations seemed capable of effortlessly churning out masterpiece after masterpiece. On the other hand, there are the devotees of the early years of the cinema, which, with its actuality footage and its one-reelers, fascinates precisely through its distance from more contemporary conceptions of aesthetic prowess. To cite a well-known silent cinema scholar, there are those who love the butterfly, and those who love the caterpillar. This year’s program alternated between the two, but rarely did it show works that might have straddled this threshold.
On the side of the butterfly, then, the Giornate offered four major programs, showcasing Ukrainian post-revolutionary film, Swedish cinema from the late 1920s (after the departure of Sjöström and Stiller for Hollywood), the films of German director Gerhard Lamprecht, and the Czech work of actress Anny Ondra, now primarily known as the star of Hitchcock’s Blackmail. Of these, the Ukrainian selection was by far the greatest revelation. New restorations of Dovzhenko’s Arsenal (1929), Zemlya (Earth, 1930) and the incomplete Sumka Dypkuryera (The Diplomatic Pouch, 1927) were accompanied by a slate of more obscure works, each one of which seemed to re-cast the “canon” of Soviet silent cinema in a new light. In this regard, one of the most fascinating works screened was Viktor Turin’s debut feature Borotba Veletniv (The Struggle of the Giants, 1926), which, long considered lost, was rediscovered last year in the Gosfilmofond archives. More renowned for the poetic documentary film Turksib (which also screened at Pordenone as part of the Canon Revisited sidebar), Turin’s depiction of class struggle in gargantuan textile factories no doubt owed a lot to Eisenstein’s Stachka (Strike, 1924), but in setting his film in a fictionalised capitalist West he not only presaged Pudovkin’s Deserter (1933), but was also able to draw on his own experiences; uniquely, for a Soviet filmmaker, Turin had studied at MIT and worked in Hollywood for five years during the 1910s. Indeed, while an impressively choreographed pitched battle between striking proletarians and the forces of reaction dominates the final reel, it is the earlier Metropolis-like scenes of dehumanised labour and monstrous machinery that are the film’s most remarkable elements.
Two works marked by stand-out performances from their male leads highlighted the rich vein of psychological realism in Ukrainian cinema at the time. In Heorhii Stabovyi’s Dva dni (Two Days, 1927), Ivan Zamychkovskyi channels Emil Jannings’s Letzter Mann in his subtle portrayal of Anton, the stoic doorman of an aristocratic manor during the Civil War, who guards the building after its inhabitants flee the impending arrival of Bolshevik troops. Initially loyal to his masters and wary about the revolutionaries (who number his son Andrii among them), events lead to Anton’s prise de conscience, and, after Andrii’s execution by the Whites, he elects to burn down the manorial estate while the reactionary generals dine within. Amvrosii Buchma gives a parallel performance as Hordii, a coach driver in Heorhii Tasin’s Nichni Viznyk (The Night Coachman, 1929), who similarly acquires revolutionary awareness after the execution of his politically-engaged child (in this case, his daughter, who is caught distributing Bolshevik pamphlets in White-controlled Odessa). Both films attempt to merge the formal traditions of realist drama with the montage aesthetic developed in Soviet cinema at the time, and, while the fusion is not always seamless, the results are eye-opening.
If the Ukrainian production of the 1920s is to be seen in an autonomous light, then perhaps what most distinguishes it within the context of pan-Soviet cinema is the persistently ironic tone of its films, which sat uneasily with the ideological strictures of Soviet film authorities. From among the films screened at the Giornate, Mykola Shpykovskyi’s Shkurnyk (The Self-Seeker, 1929) is undoubtedly the most flagrant example of this tendency: a farcical comedy, featuring a Schweikian lead who repeatedly switches sides in the Civil War for the purposes of short-term gain, the film was immediately banned. To make amends, Shpykovskyi followed the film up with Khlib (Bread, 1930), which slots alongside Eisenstein’s The General Line, Boris Barnet’s Outskirts and, most obviously, Earth, as a “tractor film” from the time of the first Five Year Plan. Like his peers, Shpykovskyi displaces the struggle for agricultural collectivisation onto the plane of an intergenerational conflict, while rendering the theme in the form of an epic poem. Alas, this film, too, met with the ire of the censors, and after 1931’s Hegemon was also banned, Shpykovskyi abandoned directing altogether. A true martyr of the cinema, the screening of Shpykovskyi’s work at the festival surely ranks as one of the great rediscoveries of this year’s Giornate.
The German Gerhard Lamprecht did not suffer the same oblivion as his Ukrainian counterpart – indeed, his later archival activities led to him becoming a key behind-the-scenes figure in German film history – but his Weimar-era films have nonetheless failed to join the canonical ranks of his compatriots such as Lang, Murnau and Pabst. All of the four works shown at Pordenone – Die Verrufenen (The Slums of Berlin, 1925), Die Unehelichen (Illegitimate Children, 1926), Menschen Untereinander (The Folks Upstairs, 1926) and Unter der Laterne (Under the Lantern, 1928) – focus on the quotidian life of the dispossessed lower classes of Berlin, and Lamprecht’s distinctive approach privileges a social-realist aesthetic, making use of non-professional actors and on-location shooting, which in some ways presages later neo-realist movements in the cinema. However, as a number of left-wing critics at the time noted, this realism is undercut by the untrammelled sentimentalism of the Moral that Lamprecht allows to imbue his work, a tendency which most comes to the fore in Illegitimate Children, where the good bourgeois foster mother is schematically opposed to the young hero’s proletarian drunkard of a biological father.
In contrast, the late-1920s Swedish films on show were uneven, and most contented themselves with tales of intrigue set within the world of bourgeois socialising. Counter-intuitively, perhaps, the comedies in this selection – Polis Paulus Påskasmäll (Constable Paulus’ Easter Crackers, 1925, featuring Scandinavia’s answer to Laurel and Hardy) and Konstgjörda Svensson (Artificial Svensson, 1929, the synch-sound prologue to which counts it as Sweden’s first sound film) – held up the best, while the Gustaf Molander-directed romances Förseglade Läppar (Sealed Lips, 1927), Hans Engelska Fru (Matrimony, 1927) and Synd (Sin, 1928) tended to be slow-moving and stilted. The highlights of the program, however, were the Arctic seal-hunting scenes from Den Starkaste (The Strongest, 1929), and the screening of a Swedish cut of Anthony Asquith’s co-production A Cottage on Dartmoor (Fången Nr 53 in the Swedish, 1929), which re-works its UK counterpart in a number of intriguing ways: presenting the narrative in a strictly chronological order, and rejigging the centrepiece movie-theatre sequence such that the feature is not a sound film (boring the audience to death, as in the British cut), but Harold Lloyd’s Hot Water, which is even shown on screen for a few seconds.
The Anny Ondra retrospective was perhaps the weakest of the showcases: with the exception of Jan Kolár’s Príchozí z temnot (Arrival from the Darkness, 1921), an eerie gothic fable whose unsettling qualities were greatly aided by a three-piece musical accompaniment provided by the Neuveritelno Trio, none of the films on offer particularly distinguished themselves cinematically, and, even more flagrantly, none proved capable of using Ondra’s considerable dramatic talents to great effect. Czech silent cinema is renowned for the fact that around 90% of its total output has survived to the present day – an inverse proportion to that of most other countries – but if this section was anything to go by, this miracle of celluloid preservation harbours few silent-era treasures. Sometimes, indeed, less is more.
These major sections were complemented by a variety of more curatorially isolated works, including William Wellman’s Louise Brooks-vehicle Beggars of Life (1928), Lupu Pieck’s snowbound Kammerspiel Scherben (Shattered, 1921), and the first filmed adaptation of Gorky’s Mat (Mother, 1920), which could not be more formally remote from Pudovkin’s more celebrated version made seven years afterwards (also shown at the festival), as well as a program of delirious Soviet animation shorts, which included surreal takes on the Baron von Münchhausen story, the Soviet postal system, and the impending “Interplanetary Revolution”.
While Pordenone’s policy on film formats continues to privilege 35mm over DCP whenever possible, the festival organisers nonetheless adopt a pragmatic stance to the celluloid/digital question, essentially leaving the decision to the archives furnishing the prints. Whereas contemporary film festivals have now almost entirely transitioned to digital projection, this means that the Giornate is now a curious battleground between the formats, revealing deep differences between the practices of different institutions. Whereas Swedish archivist Jon Wengström was pessimistic about the ability of digital projector manufacturers to handle the different frame rates needed for screening silent films, and thus presented the Swedish showcase exclusively on 35mm, the Lamprecht and Ukrainian programs were mostly shown on DCP, and the screenings suffered for it. The Lamprecht films – transferred to digital files thanks to a “digitalisation offensive” funded by the Bundesrepublik (one senses that the forces at work behind these decisions are more powerful than silent film experts) – had an unfortunate tendency to momentarily stutter at random points in time, while the Ukrainian films had major issues concerning projection speed: the sombre Two Days was screened at a ludicrously fast speed, while Earth was marred by the bizarre practice of freezing the image for a couple of frames every few seconds, which proved so distracting for viewers that the restoration is basically worthless. It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me when I say that I am something of a celluloid fetishist, and deeply sceptical about digital projection (which for silent film almost seems sacrilegious); the comparative experience of the two formats at Pordenone has only served to harden this stance, even if it is an increasingly untenable one.
But we should not forget about the caterpillar: while they may have been less preponderant in the festival’s schedule than the 1920s films, the screenings of early cinema works generated just as much interest from the Pordenone faithful. Indeed, notable silent film specialist Charles Musser stated that, for him, the program of Henri Joly/Ernest Normandin views from 1896 was alone worth the airfare to Italy. Similarly, the three-part presentation of newsreel footage from the time of the Mexican revolution, painstakingly compiled by Aurelio de los Reyes, was keenly anticipated by specialists, though few of those with a more general interest in silent cinema made it through the entire program. Along with a selection of “Italian Rarities”, early cinema was also represented by the seventh and final installment of the Australian National Film and Sound Archive’s Corrick collection: with screenings of this vast corpus having been brought to a close, the NFSA was duly awarded with this year’s Premio Jean Mitry.
Apart from their value as historical documents, the fascination with these often fragmentary pieces is of a more aleatory nature than that of their counterparts from later in the silent era. Long bouts of bewilderment or tedium can be suddenly leavened by a chance event, as was most notably the case with the parade bystanders in the Mexican program who, Kid Auto Races-style, would unwittingly walk into the frame of the newsreel camera only to be harried away by the anxious crew, causing ripples of laughter from the Pordenone public. What irony that precisely those elements that at the time were unwanted by the cameramen have now become, one hundred years later, the focal point of our interest in the film!
But I will reserve my final comments for the event which, for me and no doubt for many others at Pordenone, represented the emotional climax of the festival. For the first time in twelve years, the Giornate featured a live benshi performance in its program. Ichiro Kataoka, one of ten people in the world who continue the tradition of the benshi (a figure who would provide vocal accompaniment to film screenings in Japan during the silent era), was flown out to Italy to conduct a two-hour long session incorporating surviving fragments from two samurai-films, the Buster Keaton classic The Blacksmith (1922) and the tender tale of lesbian romance Otome shirizu sono ichi hanamonogatari fukujuso (The Scent of Pheasant’s Eye: An Episode from the Tales of Flowers, 1935). But, even though Kataoka’s entire performance was conducted in untranslated Japanese, it was difficult to take my eyes away the benshi during the screening. What emotion coursed through his body, as his improvised monologue gelled with the films projected beside him, inhabiting their characters, interacting with their dramatic arcs or offering a wry commentary on the events unfurling on screen! When asked how the audience would understand his celluloid-inspired soliloquy, Kataoka responded that they will “hear the music in my voice.” Incredibly, he was right: not for a second did I feel caught in a state of incomprehension, guided as I was by the benshi’s mellifluous vocal intonations. In the end, I could only weep for this lost art, which, like the silent cinema itself, knew untold success for a couple of decades before being almost obliterated by the arrival of sound.
Almost, but not entirely. The muse of cinema – who, at the suggestion of a documentary shown at the Giornate, I would be tempted to dub Musidora – learned to dance at a precociously young age, and conquered the hearts of the world with her entrancing movements. Having barely reached her thirties, however, she was struck dead with a mortal blow. Her ghost continues to haunt us all, everywhere; but for one week of the year, in a small town in northern Italy, her most ardent admirers amass to summon up her spirit. In the streets of Pordenone, for this one week, the muse of cinema dances once more, and we tremble at the sight of her. Ô douleur! Ô misère!
Giornate del Cinema Muto
5-12 October 2013
Festival website: http://www.cinetecadelfriuli.org/gcm/giornate/questa_edizione.html