Top Tips for Pordenone Silent Newbies

Are you craving to see some rare, silent films?
Or perhaps you just want to experience a different kind of film festival in a delicious (mmm pizza) country?
Or maybe you want to widen your circle of of like minded peers, who love films just as much as you (who, unlike the films, talk)?

Pordenone Silent Film Festival promises all that and more!

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Like cheap, delicious gelato!

It’s quite the commitment, and pretty daunting a task to actually take time off in October (30. September – 7. October 2017) to go to a festival like this but it’s well worth. But maybe it’s not your schedule- maybe you feel like you’re not smart enough, not enough in the “know”, not that caught up with the business of silent films.

I went there without any other qualifications beyond the fact that I was a student in film sciences who was interested in silent films. I can tell you that as a member of the Collegium, I felt welcomed with open arms. The festival organizers seemed really keen on having us young(er) people around, and it usually didn’t feel too intimidating to ask questions about anything. Which brings me to the first tip:

1. Apply to be a member of the Collegium

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Award ceremony for the best paper of last year’s Collegium.

The Collegium consists of 12 individuals interested in film, who also happen to be under 30 years of age. They are in attendance for screenings, but also to learn more about what’s going on in various silent film-related fields, through dialogues and presentations from experts within the field. The only thing you have to do to be considered is to write an application some time before the deadline, which is typically in July, just before festival. In the application, you state your reasons for going to the festival, and what aspects of silent films you are interested in. You can read more about it here.

If you are accepted as a part of the Collegium, you need not worry about purchasing tickets for screenings, booking hotels and the breakfast every day, since all this will be arranged for you at no cost. And because the group is small, you get to socialize with like minded peers and colleagues. Usually you are booked together with another Collegium member at the hotel, so you get to know at least one person quite well during the week. After the daily screenings, there’s usually always someone up for drinks – another opportunity to socialize! Because of the nature of the festival, you tend to go together for dinners with the group as well or parts of it. Being a Collegian, you are also invited to special events during the week.

After the festival is done, you have to write a paper on a broad aspect of the Pordenone experience (or you could be more specific and focus on one area too!). It’s not required that you know everything about what you are going to write about when the week is over, and you are given time to write it (however, you shouldn’t delay it too long to start on it). As for how to write it – it shouldn’t be a diary or travelogue of the experience and it shouldn’t, on the other side of the spectrum, be a dry academic paper.

2. Plan your stay

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With a Collegium class at 1315, I could not see the entirety of this program, but planning made me certain of just how much I had time for.

If it wasn’t clear from the not-so-daily updates, the Pordenone Silent Film Festival is a busy affair. From 0900 to past midnight there are few substantial breaks, other than the 1.5h break at 1900 each day-for dinner! Beyond that, don’t hold your breath. This is because there could be mistakes in running times (mostly the archives sending longer copies than planned), which means the 15 minutes between programs might be cut short by a few minutes as well.

So unless you are a film-watching machine, you can’t attend everything. It is very tempting to, but it’s not physically possible. Therefore, in order to maximize your time efficiently, you should plan what to watch and, more importantly, what to skip. Everybody needs a pizza break and a stretch from time to time. My tip would be to look at the program and catalogue as soon as it gets posted on the website. If you have no time to do it before leaving for Italy, save it as a .pdf, and do it on the plane and train. You can thank me later.

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The festival catalogue is as thick (or thicker!) than some books.

It should be mentioned that reading the catalogue is a joy in itself. You learn so much from it, which enriches the experience before watching the film, so the earlier you start reading it the better. It also gives you clues if you have no idea if a program is to your taste or not.

3. Diversify- don’t hole yourself up in the theatre!

I would strongly recommend to take off time from watching films, especially in the early days to go for events such as Masterclasses and Dialogues. I’ve raved about my experience going for a Masterclass here, but it was the last one they did ,and honestly I wished I had gone for all of them. Not only is it a musical show, but it is also greatly educational about film analysis. The hands-on (the piano *ba-dum-tsss*) but in-depth analysis of how comedy taught me a lot and gave me a fresh perspective on my “field” (film sciences). You don’t need any experience in film analysis or knowledge of music to follow the Masterclass, and I think anyone would be swayed by the idea of film analysis being worthwhile and useful after attending one of these. Not only does it make the accompanists better (which is very noticeable in the class itself) but it enriches the experience of watching movies, give them more meaning.

I attended every Dialogue, alongside other talks (a book presentation about early German film theory that was an eye-opener) and very often, they gave me lots of fresh ideas and taught me new things. Even if I was just listening and not actively participating or engaging with the experts. But for those who are less anxious about that, rest assured that they are all very friendly, approachable and are open to talk. There are plenty of opportunities to get even more insight from experts from around the globe. The varied topics, from early cinema to digital archiving, kept things fresh and interesting every day.

4. Have a look around!

Pordenone is a “sleeping” city in the sense that the bars close early, and not much is going on apart from the festival, but it is a very beautiful place. The river, the parks, the architecture and the many cool shops are worth seeing. I would sometimes take different to the screenings at Teatro Verdi (where all the screenings are) just to see new parts of the town. This is also good for spotting new places to eat – I’ve been to Italy before, and it’s becoming very clear that each town has many great options. Often the restaurants and bars are situated nearby, sand you are in the middle of historic parts of town, which really adds to the ambience and experience.

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Only a pink Ferrari will do for a wedding in the rich town of Pordenone.

Questions? Feel free to put a comment down below!

The 35th Pordenone Silent Film Festival: Day 8

The last day of the festival was a short one for me – hence this shorter post
(*collective audible sighs of relief from the readers*). I missed the big event of the day because of an early train, even though it was possibly the biggest event of the festival – the closing night screening of The Thief of Bagdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924). Again, like the opening night, it was accompanied by a full orchestra.

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“Look at meeee!” – Douglas Fairbanks

Thief of Bagdad is probably known for being one of the best films starring one of the biggest stars of the silent era – Douglas Fairbanks. For this festival however, there were two things that got the most buzz regarding this particular screening: William Cameron Menzies’ masterful art direction on the big screen and the recently discovered lost original score for the film, re-composed, synchronized and conducted by the great Mark Fitz-Gerald.

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Douglas Fairbanks and The Thief of Bagdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924)  was the poster-boy of the festival

But because an early flight was much cheaper, I didn’t get to experience it.

😦

Before leaving however, I did sneak in some time in for the last Collegium dialogue, which was a bit of a melancholic, bittersweet affair as we all knew this was the last time for this year. But there’s always next year!

The last part of the Polish program ended strong with A Strong Man (Mocny czlowiek, Henryk Szaro, 1929). As my film professor Bjørn Sørenssen remarked, this is Polish expressionism! A man with little writing talent kills his friend in order to steal his unpublished manuscript and pass it off as his, in order to get fame and fortune. Stylistically, it has all the trademarks of a German expressionist film – distorted figures, chiaroscuro effects and rejection of any realistic depiction of anything, instead focusing on the madness that resides within the main character Henryk Bielecki (Gregori Chmara). I never expected to see anything like this from Poland, which goes again to show that pre-WW2 Polish cinema was very diverse – and also very good. I have enjoyed every film I have seen of the program.

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Gregori Chmara in A Strong Man (Henryk Szaro, 1929) (photo: Filmoteka Narodowa)

And that’s about it – sadly, I missed the screening of Yasujiro Ozu’s most-likely-a-masterpiece-because-all-his-films-are-great I Was Born But… (1932), I also missed The Woman Disputed (Henry King, 1928) as part of the William Cameron Menzies program. Nor did I see anything of the Al Christie program, a director of comedies, which I heard great things about from other Collegians. But in a festival like this, you can’t see everything every day. The program is packed to the brim, starting every day at 9 AM and often ending an hour past midnight. So Ozu, Christie and Menzies will have to accept my apologies.

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Don’t look at me like that boys, I swear I will watch the next Ozu! (I Was Born, But… (Yasujiro Ozu, 1932))

So I guess this is it. By the time this is out, it will have been a week since the festival has ended. And while I felt exhausted right after coming home to Trondheim, Norway – with a week’s time to look back on it -I feel so happy I went. I’ve had great festival experiences before in Berlin, Bergen and Trondheim – but this was something special. I can see why so many people return to Pordenone every year, it is a week to catch up with rare films and other rare individuals who share a love for silent film. It’s an opportunity to discover the past – quite intensively, I might add. And it’s a place for unique cinematic experiences, where else can you really go to, where a screening has someone playing the piano and the violin simultaneously? Or discuss the merits of Sao Paulo, Symphony of a Metropolis (Kemeny & Lustig, 1929) as a city symphony film.


Arriverderci, Pordenone!

The 35th Pordenone Silent Film Festival: Day 7

The remaining two days of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival wrapped up most of the programs, with some ending on a very high note – others, I just finally got to see something from after hearing a lot of buzz.

The John H. Collins program wasn’t on my radar at all before or even during the festival’s first four or so days, until I met people who had gone to check out his films and proclaimed their love for them. They mentioned specifically how different and modern his films were, and how solid they were as melodramas. And from reading the festival catalogue, you learn that he was an early auteur that died way too young of influenza at 28, in 1916, and that if he had lived longer he could have been a big name in both in his time and in film history books. Even though he had a short life, he had made a fair share of films (41 credits as a director currently on imdb) and in Pordenone eight of these were shown. I only got the chance to see the last two on the extensive program about him, and even though they were generally not considered the best of the program, I was convinced: John H. Collins deserves more recognition. As a creative force in silent film, he is just too unique to be missed.

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Ad for Blue Jeans (John H. Collins, 1917) (photo: movessilently.com)

I watched Blue Jeans (1917) and Riders of the Night (1918), and I found both very unusual for American films of the 1910s. They also moved me a lot. What they both have in common is that they take the melodrama “genre” and infuse it with stark realism. The comfortable tried and tested melodrama formula is destabilized, as it is punctuated with moments that constantly break loose of the fictive, artificial realm of the melodrama to disconcert and horrify us, reminding us of very real things. In Riders of the Night the lead female character Sally Castleton (Viola Dana) is about to be hanged for a crime she did not commit, and in a horrifying scene, a noose fades in and is superimposed around her neck. In another scene, we see the same woman clench her fist so hard that her nails pierce into her skin that she bleeds. It seems clear that John H. Collins wants us to think of suffering not only as an ingredient in melodrama, but also how it is an experience not uncommon in society.

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Postcard still of Riders of the Night (John H. Collins, 1918) (photo: messagesfromthepast.wordpress.com)

Specifically the suffering of women. Collins, through horrifying imagery, pierces through the safe membrane of escapism we’re wrapped in when watching melodrama, to point out how women were treated in the reality of his time. His use of lighting also accentuates these harsh images and amplifies the resultant effect. A simple sawmill turns into a house of horrors. Rooms are made small and claustrophobic, pointing to how Viola Dana’s character in Blue Jeans suffered under the patriarchy. The two Collins films I saw were not only adept in their portrayal of the real struggles women endured, however. They were made confidently, and edited expertly to pace it such that it built a lot of tension. Collins knows what he is doing, and one does not have to read a lot into the films to see the talent he had as a filmmaker. Viola Dana, his wife and later young widow at 21, hold her own as a talented actress in his films and was clearly a major factor contributing towards the convincing quality of the films I saw.

One of the bigger events of the Friday was the Venezia 120 event, showing Venice 120 years ago on film (Pordenone is only an hour away from Venice by train). In 1896, it was the Lumière brothers and their assistants that captured Venice on film. The Lumière brothers are often considered the inventors of film (in reality there were many people involved with different inventions) and for having put up the first paid public screening of films in December 1895. In order to expand their business they sent cameramen around the world to film exotic places and their people, to then screen these films of familiar places and exotic places to locals. Film historian Tom Gunning considers these films (and generally non-fiction film before WW1) “view” films in that they are often minute-long single-shot films that are more about putting the viewer in the position to look for things in the images themselves and for the film to display them, rather than putting images into a bigger structure and context.

The Lumière films shown at the festival naturally showed a lot of gondolas and people of high standing disembarking from them, because they were all placed around Venice. I can’t say they were among my favorites, but it was a special experience to see them on the big screen with a student orchestra. After these Lumière films was a feature film from Germany called Venetianische Nacht (Max Reinhardt, 1913) shot of course in Venice as well. This obscure and bizarre dream-like comedy became too confusing and unfunny for me very quickly and it is the only film I truly dislike of the festival. These things happen in a festival that doesn’t focus much on set in stone canonized masterpieces though.

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Erotikon (Mauritz Stiller, 1920) (photo: Svenska Filminstitutet)

A comedic film that really worked for me and that surely must already be a part of the canon is the Swedish Erotikon (Mauritz Stiller, 1920). An old entomology professor is deeply interested in the sex life of bugs, meanwhile his young wife is “interested”, shall we say, in two younger men. Erotikon is despite its title not an overtly sexual film, although there’s a bit of kink there. But like Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) or Ernst Lubitsch’s film (e.g. I Don’t Want to be a Man (1918)) it pushes a lot of buttons of what is allowed to show and do thematically on film. It does it rather well. The knowing looks, the feeling that you are in on the sexual jokes, makes for great comedy. Anders de Wahl as the professor and Tora Teje as the professor’s wife are particularly joyous to watch.

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Today’s Masterclass

Speaking for joyous to watch – I finally got the chance to attend one of the Masterclasses! It’s a much cherished part of every Pordenone festival that is both a show on piano accompaniment to silent films but also a two hour analysis of film. One or two experienced mentors teach, in this case, two younger pianists some tools in the trade in how to accompany silent films with piano play. And we get to see them try different things as they play along to films, to see what work and doesn’t. This day was devoted to two very different comedies, The Finishing Touch (Hal Roach, 1928), a Laurel and Hardy classic, and The Oyster Princess (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919). I feel like I have learned a lot about how comedies telegraph their jokes in advance, which gives the pianist clues to how to structure their accompaniment. I don’t play any instrument yet I had so much fun and got so much insight. If I were to make a top 5 of experiences at the festival, this rather unique 2 hour show would definitely be on it. If you at some point decide to go here, a Masterclass just can’t be missed!

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Jeux des refelts et de la vitesse (1925) by Rene Clair’s brother Henri Chomette (photo: MUBI)

Friday was a high-point for non-fiction films. In addition to the Lumières, the last part of the City Symphonies program was one of the best of the festival. Five shorts were shown: the Czech film Aimless Walk (Alexander Hackenschmied, 1930), a previous personal favorite Jeux des reflets et de la vitesse (Henri Chomette, 1925), Eugène Deslaw’s Les nuits électriques (1928), La zone (Georges Lacombe, 1928) and finally the obscure Austrian amateur film Prater (Friedrich Kuplent, 1929). All these truly belong under the umbrella “city symphony” in that they managed to find a rhythm through just using images from the cities themselves, often in inventive ways.

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Prater (Friedrich Kuplent, 1929) (photo: Österreichisches Filmmuseum)

Prater surely takes the number one spot for the boldest effort, as it showed me ways of approaching film which I had not seen before, and I already feel like I have seen a lot of avant-garde films. Sure, why not put a spinning animated “wheel” over your 7,5 mm film and rapidly edit your footage of amusement parks to create the sensation of a bustling Austrian city. Prater truly is a discovery and a pioneering work in its time, and much like the other films it was shown together with a very energetic and “modern”. The icing of the cake of this screening was the accompaniment, which brought forward the musical quality of these films.

The 35th Pordenone Silent Film Festival: Day 6

Cowgirl westerns! City symphonies! German film theory! Shakespeare! Like most days, Day 6 of the Giornate had something for everyone with a slight interest in silent films. There were also other programs that I didn’t find time for, such as an extensive program of the great British early cinema director R.W. Paul, a Danish serial program with the enticing name The Man with the Missing Finger (A. W. Sandberg, 1915). Ironically, the serial is missing two of the four films in it.

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The Man with the Missing Finger I (A.W. Sandberg, 1915) (image copyright: MUBI)

Today’s City Symphony program took us to Chicago, Tokyo and Beograd. While the one on Chicago, Halsted Street (Conrad Friberg, 1934) perhaps seemed the least interesting on paper, it was the best of the bunch. At just 11 minutes it was more of a song than a symphony – but it seemed to at least belong in the program unlike Beograd, the Capital of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (Vojin Djordevic, 1932) which had no rhythm to it. It seemed to be more of a tourist documentary, and frankly, I don’t see why it is a part of the program. With only minimal stylistic playfulness borrowed from avant-garde filmmaking and cutting that does not liven the city nor capture its “pulse” it seems very out of tune with both Halsted Street and the Japanese Symphony of the Rebuilding of the Imperial Metropolis (1929). The latter is particularly historically significant as it shows the rebuilding of Tokyo after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 and the fire it caused, which killed 68,000 people.

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Beograd, the Capital of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (Vojin Djordevic, 1932) (image copyright: Jugoslovenska Kinoteka)

A very solid program through and through is the Early Westerns, which is in its second year. This year, the focus was on the 1912-1913 American westerns. This was period of Westerns was almost a “pre-genre” in that it was highly experimental with a lot of what a Western could be. Part of the idea of the program was to discover the evolution of the genre and its sub-genres, and the historical trajectory of its development. The theme of the day was “cowgirl” westerns, which involved women playing a central role, or were the protagonists of the story. Particularly memorable were The Craven (Rollin S. Sturgeon, 1912) and Sallie’s Sure Shot (1913), both films very direct in their representation of women.

In The Craven, a husband boasts of being brave- something that is not unexpected or unsurprising in the hypermasculine world of Westerns. As it turns out, he is a big coward and his wife helps him to become the sheriff. When he becomes the sheriff of the town, he is asked to capture a bad guy – dead or alive. But he is too scared, so his wife has to do all of the hard work for him so that he can go to the sheriff’s station to imprison the criminal. It’s fascinating and refreshing to me to see women portrayed this way in a genre that subsequently became very conservative in its representation. No doubt at the time, it was meant more as a criticism of “weak” men, but it works surprisingly well to read the film as one with a strong female character and feminist undertones. Sallie’s Sure Shot lives up to its title – Sallie is an incredible marksman in a comedic western that plays with dynamite. In one scene, she saves the day by cutting the fuse on fire leading to the dynamite with a single shot of her rifle. Women have grit!

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Release flier for Sallie’s Sure Shot (1913)

The Pordenone Silent Film Festival isn’t a conference per se, but it does offer seminars (“FilmFairs”) in which recent publications in the field of silent film research can be presented. I particularly looked forward to the book presentation on The Promises of Cinema. German Film Theory 1907 – 1933a mammoth project by Anton Kaes, Nicholas Baer and Michael Cowan that rather uniquely covers the width of theorizing on film in a country that brought new ideas to the film-medium and evolved film theory as a practice. The book has translated essays to English from big film theorists such as Sigfried Kracauer and Bela Balazs, but also have essays from filmmakers and actors (i.e. Fritz Lang, Emil Jannings) journalists and anonymous people (!).

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The book in question available for purchase in the temporary store set up for the festival for films (and books about them) in the first floor of the Teatro Verdi

The book covers 18 different topics that all sound fascinating, for example, moral panic as it relates to the film medium, cinephilia and technology. It is not meant to be read chapter by chapter- instead it is a book that affords the reader to cherrypick a couple essays here and there for new (old) insight, and not necessarily in chronological order. As many of the essays were written in the moment, it is also historiographical – you read film theory developing as it happened. Personally, I can’t wait to get time to read it to understand more of why Weimar Republic cinema was the way it was, and how the seeds of early film theory were planted.

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Kean (Alexander Volkoff, 1924) (image copyright: quinlan.it)

I ended my day with some Shakespeare. Specifically, the melodrama Kean (Alexander Volkoff, 1924) about an actor doing Shakespeare plays that falls in love with an older, noblewoman who attends one of his performances of Romeo and Juliet. Silent star Ivan Mosjoukine plays the title character and like always acts very convincingly in a very difficult role. As you  watch it you have to believe he could pull off Shakespeare well, at the same time his character needs depth outside that performance inside the film. Kean is close to a masterpiece. It is a great showcase in how an actor can draw you in and grip you emotionally- especially when he’s having a breakdown, which happens during a performance of Hamlet inside the film, which was the beginning of the end of a very tragic story that moved me deeply. Kean is not the kind of film I would seek out if it wasn’t for a festival, so I am so glad that they made space for it here. Today, like all the other days, has been a day of new discoveries at the Giornate- I am learning so much through both watching the films and hearing about them.

The 35th Pordenone Silent Film Festival: Day 5

I only saw two longer films on the fifth day of the Giornate, simply because they were collectively six hours (!) long. I started my morning with a quick walk around the city (took a new route today!), before it was time for the 2-hour long Pan Tadeusz (1929), a film I picked out because a) it was a part of the Polish program and b) it was directed by Ryszard Ordýnski, the same director of the film I still can’t shut up about, Janko the Musician (1930).

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Bring your dogs to the bar in Pordenone!

Pan Tadeusz was not an easy film to get into, as someone who was not familiar with Polish literature. While the others had themes that were more universally accessible, this was based off of a 1834 poem by Adam Mickiewicz, considered one of the last great epic poems in European literature and a national treasure in Poland. It is a poem familiar to most Poles because it is taught in schools, and is considered a part of their national identity, which is what the film obviously wanted to build on. The release of film- which at the time had what was regarded as a very big budget- was considered a historical event.

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Pan Tadeusz (Ryszard Ordinsky, 1929) (image copyright: Filmoteka Narodowa)

Notice how I am sort of avoiding talking about what the film is about. Watching the film itself didn’t really offer me too many clues, as it is very stylistic and not terribly interested in giving a clear filmic narrative. Rather, it remains very faithful to its original text, in that it quotes the poem in passages directly, and with painstaking effort tried to recreate famous wood engravings and illustration that are somehow linked to the poem – through its mise-en-scene.

What the story boils down to though, is a tale of two rival noble families living in what used to be Poland-Lithuania from 1569 to 1795 until it was divided into three partitions by Russia, Prussia and Austria. Tadeusz from one of the noble families finds love in Zosia in the other. At the same time, there is a sudden revolt in the Russian partition.

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Illustration of Pan Tadeusz by Michal Elwiro Andriolli

While the new, longer restoration of Pan Tadeusz is still not a complete version, it is well worth seeing just to see a very unique, different kind of film, and if you read the epic poem too, I’m sure you will get even more out of it. While I could’ve taken more from the experience (if I had been more prepared for it), it did at least make it even more obvious that pre-war Polish film was very varied. And like several of the others, it was immensely beautiful to behold.

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Monte Cristo (Henri Fescourt, 1928) (image copyright: San Fransisco Film Society)

The big event of the day was obviously the almost four-hour long French adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo; Monte Cristo (Henri Fescourt, 1929). There was quite a lot of hype before the screening naturally because of the length (a hot topic of conversation) and that this was a big production back in the day. But also because Henri Fescourt’s six-hour long film version of Les Misérables was screened last year, and almost everyone I talked to at Pordenone at that time thought that it was the highlight of the whole festival. Certainly then, Henri Fescourt had a lot to live up to with another major adaptation by a major work. Really, anything less than the best ever film adaptation of Dumas’ book would be disappointing.

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Monte Cristo (Henri Fescourt, 1928) (image copyright: San Fransisco Film Society)

It didn’t do well in its time. Fairly soon after its release it had been forgotten and as decades past it had fallen into the depth of obscurity and had become more of a myth and legend as no prints were thought to have survived. This all changed in the 1990s, when almost complete prints were found in Eastern European archives. Restoration then began in 1999, and only in 2015 was the restored film given its new premiere in San Francisco. The restored print of the film is certainly no lazy piece of work. The quality of it is rather amazing, in that while watching it, you don’t really notice how bad it once used to be – despite the film being rather slow for my taste in the first half.

By the last two hours or so however, I was completely immersed in the film. The humor of Alexandre Dumas’ writing came through much more clearly in the latter half, and all the preambulatory plot of the first two hours came to very satisfying conclusions. Elegant large set-pieces, wonderfully gratuitous and scenic shots of ships, coupled with intriguing and inventive ways of using the moving camera – it was a joy to behold. Jean Angelo, a true star of French silent film also makes a really great Edmond Dantès. While I’m not able to compare this to Les misèrables which everybody raved about, Monte Cristo certainly met my loftier expectations for a Dumas adaptation and a film of an epic length.

The 35th Pordenone Silent Film Festival: Day 4

Day 4 at Giornate has left my head bursting with so many new thoughts and ideas!
It has also left me full of optimism for the future of older films. A real eye-opener for the day was the bonus Collegium dialogue on digital archiving. I was slightly worried going into it, as I was worried that it would be a session chock full of jargon only comprehensible to advanced technical archivists, as I’m pretty much uninitiated to much of it as just a guy who has never even been in film archive. (even though this week involved hanging around archivists from all around the world, all day, everyday.)

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The EYE film institute in Amsterdam (image copyright: structurae.de)

To kick off this eye opening session- pun intended- was Jeroen de Mol from the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam. They went on to talk about the absolutely wonderful digital archiving system that they are working on – EYE-D (pun also intended, on their part). Without using too much technical jargon, their new digital archive in progress is essentially a program with search engine, streaming and intuitive capabilities which enables you to not only watch their entire archive of films (given that you are granted permission from your computer), but you can also upload films to their archive with a few clicks. Uploading a film creates a new streaming link for it on their specially developed video player, which is partly based on the metadata of the upload which gives the stream the correct framerate, and so on. You can also easily pause at individual frames of the film. When a film is uploaded, it is also transferred to an LTO-harddrive (a longer lasting type of hard drive compared to the one in the computer or mobile device you’re reading this from) for backup via a robot, so that it is not at the complete mercy of the one digital copy being made in front of you. Every step of the process is logged automatically for extra safety and backing up, just in case. Especially with older films, a “just in case” contingency plan is always a good thing.

If you are getting a film, but not interested in the whole film, the video player can easily let you select the parts you found interesting (so perhaps cutting out the latter half of yesterdays Sao Paulo city symphony) and put it in your own personal “shopping carts”. This «shopping cart» is perhaps my favorite feature of the whole system, as you can create your own databases in your account in their archive of films or clips of films that fit what you are after – this can also be shared with others via a simple customized direct link with a button. The search engine part of the system should not be ignored either: “Googling” a film in a digital archive makes life much easier for anyone who needs or wants to check find a specific piece within an archive.

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The EYE Filmmuseum (image copyright: eyefilm.nl)

All in all, this type of intuitive, easy to use digital archiving saves everyone a lot of time, and if all the tens and thousands of films and other materials in a large archive like EYE becomes digital and searchable, it will become much easier to see the possibility of every piece of archival material could be identified, tagged and accounted for in meaningful ways – unlike a lot of the material today. That’s part of why rediscoveries in festivals like the Pordenone are rediscoveries: they were mislabelled or unindentified films in archives that they didn’t even know they had, until someone opened the cans of film again, and by luck or chance, knew and recognized what they were seeing. Because streaming and searching on a computer is much faster, the rediscovery process should be a lot faster. Image recognition software is also going places, and will likely be a helpful tool in the future in identifying unidentified films through perhaps, image-matching searches, or image based search algorithms. All the data in a digital archive can also make it easier to do big-data and empirical research in the film sciences.

All of the EYE digital film museum will not be available to everyone however, because of copyrighted material. But then again, there is plenty of archival material that either does not have any owner, or in some cases, expired or ambiguous rights status (most likely because there are no current monetizing incentives involved for those particular archived items).

Here’s where the second presentation of the bonus Collegium dialogue comes in. David Pierce and Eric Hoyt has started a project (Media History Digital Library) to make film magazines that do not belong under the present copyright law accessible to everybody, and the database is entirely searchable. At http://lantern.mediahist.org/ , I did a quick search for the film Janko the Musician (Ordynski, 1930) and found out that according to the American Cinematographer’s October 1930 edition, it was the first multi-lingual Polish production, as they were making four (!) versions: a German, a French, a Polish and an English version. Open, accessible and easily navigated projects such as this is useful for more than sourcing for fun facts for a film blog – it could potentially be very useful for reception studies and film historians. On a symbolic level, it is also quite important in its efforts to save as much as we can from the past, as corporeal film archives can easily disappear in a flash (or slowly deteriorate over time). Or go up in flames. Literally.

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Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009) (image copyright: Universal Pictures)

Nanà (Camillo De Riso, 1917) was a film shown today that has been saved (well, partly) from slow destruction quite recently, believed to have been completely lost. Like the 1926 Jean Renoir version screened later in the evening, it is based on the 1880 novel by the same name by Emile Zola. One can easily understand the appeal of creating several versions of this film: in it, we see a woman from a very humble background gradually make her way to become a high-class prostitute, destroying any men who get in her path. The 1917 Italian film was initially regarded as suitable for mass audiences, but as rumours spread before its launch about the risqué and adult nature of the film (which showed the silent firm siren Tilde Kassay in her prime seducing men), it eventually ended up being confiscated a few hours before the first screening. Of course, the salacious nature of the film is regarded as very mild by today’s standards, but one can see from the one-third of the film that survived that it is fairly sexual. It comes off as a milder version of a Danish 1910s circus and attraction films (featuring Asta Nielsen), but because it was partially set in high society, it became more difficult for it to pass through censorship in its time.

Because so much is lost from the 1917 Nanà, it is difficult to engage it in a fair comparison with the Jean Renoir film, and Jean Renoir is Jean Renoir, so very few can compare. He wasn’t that big of a name when he made his third film however, and Nana (1926) flopped at the box-office, which meant that Renoir could not produce as films with as extravagant a budget for the next decade or so – until La regle du Jeu / The Rules of the Game (1939), which was also a critical and commercial flop, until it was canonized much later. Nana (1926) is not that well-known and is therefore a good target for the Pordenone film festival for a rediscovery. It is probably not going to be considered essential work anytime soon, however it was a very enjoyable watch.

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Die Weisse Wüste (Ernst Wendt, 1922) (image copyright: Filmmuseum München)

Another enjoyable watch was the last screening of the day, The White Desert (Die Weisse Wüste, Ernst Wendt, 1922) a peculiar German film set in a harsh Nordic environment, a so-called Schwedenfilme – a mini-genre that was popular among German critics in the silent era. It is partly shot on location in Sweden, and has characters with Nordic names like Sigurd, Björn, Signe and Nora. It has also, rather randomly, included all sorts of animals like reindeers, foxes, sea lions, a real polar bear and a man in a bear suit. This is in large part due to it being a Hagenbeck production, and the Hagenbeck family was world famous for their animal (and human) zoos, and saw film as an area for magnificent displays of animals. It is far from being a truly great film, and it seems to lose its way because it’s adamant on using all the animals on the set, even if it does not make sense. I had fun with it however, as a curiosity piece from the Weimar Republic. Props to the accompaniment for this screening, Günther Buchwald and Frank Bockius, as they gave the film an extraordinary treatment. I was particularly fond of how they brought life to the ice, making it “feel” like ice, sending shivers down my spine, making me feel cold as I was watching it. Film is supposed to be felt too, and the disconcerting tones they created made me uncomfortable in a “good” way, and enriched the experience by lending a very tactile and tangible corporeality to the films being shown.

The 35th Pordenone Silent Film Festival: Day 3

With Day 3, I think I have found my favorite program of the festival, and that would be the series of Polish films.  It is perhaps the festival’s largest series, and it’s also the one I have talked about the most about so far. One reason for this, even despite the average quality of these films, could be attributed to their uniqueness.  I am inclined to disagree though, because I do think that the quality is pretty high, which is why I was surprised to learn that the Polish themselves have spoken poorly of the films.

Before this, there probably has never been a consolidated, curated program for pre-WW2 Polish films such as this available for public viewing. Well, perhaps in Poland, but maybe not even there. This morning started with another Who’s Guilty? short, and was followed with The Call of the Sea (Zew morza, Henryk Szaro, 1927), a maritime and country melodrama.  That was quite a strange film for Poland to produce at the time though, since most, if not all, of the film production was done in Warsaw, far from any sea. Back then, they had also only recently got access to the Baltic Sea where this was shot. But with help from the Polish Navy, it was possible to create spectacular action sequences, which included torpedo launches and what could only be described as captivating aerial eyecandy (utilizing one of the Navy’s hydroplanes).

The Call of the Sea contrasts these unusual images with shots of the countryside, which are beautiful in their own right, creating a juxtaposition that was curiously riveting. While the story was mostly following a run of the mill romantic triangle (standard fare) – it is quite comedic at several points, proving to be visually arresting and simultaneously entertaining- I had a great time with it! Marjusz Maszynski (in the snapshot above) in the role as the unmarried rich son getting desperate to find love is particularly fun to watch.

Day 3 was also the day when the City Symphony program really kicked off.  City symphonies are films which bring together documentary and avant-garde styles to bring the rhythm of the city to the films. The most well known ones are Berlin: A Symphony of a City (Walter Ruttmann, 1927) and Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929). These works were hugely popular and very influential, and they inspired filmmakers all over the world over to create more symphonies in the late 1920s and 1930s. On today’s program were three very different symphonies: an Argentinian film (This is How the Obelisk Was Born, Horacio Coppola, 1936), a Brazilian one (São Paulo, Symphony of a Metropolis, Adalberto Kemeny & Rudolpho Rex Lustig, 1929) and the Hungarian Budapest – the City of Spas and Cures (István Somkúti & László Kandó, 1935).

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São Paulo, Symphony of a Metropolis (Kemeny & Lustig, 1929) (image copyright oficinasculturais.org.br)

I missed the first of these, but I got in on time for the longest city symphony that was made, which was the one on the city of São Paulo. According to the festival catalogue, it is supposed to be only 90 minutes long-which would make it the longest of them- but in truth, it felt much longer than that, and I would not be surprised if the archive sent a longer version. The style of city symphonies doesn’t lend itself to lengthy films, as that would probably make it too indulgent. São Paulo, Symphony of a Metropolis seemed to be close to ending at several points (it even had a classic sunset scene), but it consistently caught both the audience and the pianist by surprise by the fact that it didn’t want to end, which was greeted with great laughter. It was adamant in hammering home a very patriotic and nationalistic message before it decided that enough was enough. At the end of the day it was the most talked about film – so it had that going for it. Seeing a city on its way to becoming the modern city it is today is rather interesting also as historical architectual fingerprints.

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Camilla Horn and John Barrymore in Tempest (Taylor, 1928) (image copyright United Artists)

Another fascinating, politically loaded film was the main event of the day, the Hollywood production Tempest (Sam Taylor, 1928). In the history of Hollywood, as with every nation’s film production, there has been a tradition of looking to other nations as being somewhat exotic and dangerous. Tempest takes place during the Russian Revolution and it becomes clear very quickly that it is a film that does two things: provide a solid melodramatic romance story with two great actors (Camilla Horn and John Barrymore) and to tell about how scary communism is. A peasant (John Barrymore) advances to the rank of lieutenant but is resented by the aristocrats surrounding him. WW1 breaks out putting the country in all sorts of trouble and a mythical figure (Boris de Fast), with strong similarities to Grigori Rasputin slowly convinces the working class to rebel and the mise-en-scène turns more and more hellish as we get a situation very similar to the execution of the Romanov family in 1918. While the Russians and communism looks convincingly scary much thanks to the vivid art direction of W. M Menzies, it is perhaps most interesting as a look into how Hollywood wanted Americans to think about communism, after having gone through a first wave of Red Scare in the early 1920s.

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Zaubertrick mit opfblume / Lady Conjurer with Potted Flower (year unknown), the first of the chromolithographic loops shown.

I have yet to discuss the German chromolithographic loops, which were occasionally used start the screenings! These very old (dating them is very difficult) short “loops” are colored, single-action “films” that stretch the definition of what film is, since back in the day, they were not projected for mass audiences. Instead, they were regarded as toys and not taken seriously. Having them projected on the big screen on a big festival like this (with accompaniment, no less!) makes a clear statement that we should take a good look at them and take them seriously in archival and academic circles. That being said, they are great fun pieces that work well as an aperitif to the main events. One had a frog jumping to and from a box, and featured a man standing there and watching on, frustrated as he tries to catch it. In my little cinematic utopia, I’d personally love to see cinemas do more of this, and have short, less than a minute fun films to put the audience in the mood, which makes for a nice change from a string of seeming endless (and uninteresting) commercials.