The 35th Pordenone Silent Film Festival: Day 1
It becomes pretty evident when you go through a whole day’s worth of activities at the festival that silent films encapsulate a wide variety. Even after just a day here, I’m falling love with both the festival and this small, but beautiful city.
Despite the hectic schedule, which runs from 9am to 12 midnight everyday, everything is within reach, and the majority of the screenings are held at the same location, the old Teatro Verdi.
Just beyond the doorstep of the festival venues are a host of food outlets and bars to sate the hunger and slake the thirst in between screenings, so a pint of ale and a slice of margherita pizza are never too far off.
Having a film festival here is a fantastic idea, because the venues are accessible and close by, with amenities just around the corner. Culturally, it’s a stunning place as well, as walks to venues are across cobbled streets, flanked by timeless architecture.
But let’s talk about the films. The curators have done an excellent job in pacing the program so it maintains a varied composition, not wearing you out, to degree that you barely notice time passing throughout the day.
First up was an (unintentionally?) hilarious first episode of a serial called Who’s Guilty?. Serials were extremely profitable films that were shorter in duration, that were strung together under the same setup (or a longer narrative, a la Feuillade’s crime serial Les vampires (1915)). Watching them is kind of like watching a TV-series: there’s a short story where the plot gets resolved quite quickly, and is wrapped up over the course of two film reels (approximately 24 minutes when run at 20 frames per second).
The first episode, which kicked off this year’s festival, had the first reel missing. But even though you only got the latter half of the film, it still worked both as a curiosity piece and for the sake of entertainment. The story was about a surgeon who has advanced in his field, thanks to the support of his wife (this part of the film is lost). But then the wife falls ill, and wants her husband to conduct the surgery that will save her life. The agreement to do so, however, would be crossing some professional ethical boundaries. Nevertheless, the husband relents and goes through with the surgery, but the wife dies in the process, ending the film quite abruptly.
I mentioned earlier on that this film is perhaps quite unintentionally hilarious, and that is because of the surgery scene-which was filmed at an actual hospital, with the involvement of actual medical staff. It was done with such unabashed melodramatic pomp, that one had to laugh at the spectacle of the entire scene. While perhaps it wasn’t intended to be that funny (or remotely funny at all), it does work as a very dark comedy today.
The large program on Polish silents kicked off just after, and we were treated to the feature film, People with No Tomorrow. The first day’s schedule had an impressive actuality on the 500 year celebration of the Battle of Grunwald, a newsreel on lightweight kajaks and the feature film People with No Tomorrow (Ludzie bez jutra, Aleksander Hertz, 1919). As is it obvious from the title, People with No Tomorrow is a bleak film that was banned until 1921 in Poland, due to its darker themes and morose overtones.
A femme fatale toys with a young officer, getting into his head and playing mind games with him to the point that he actually ends up shooting her. The psychology behind the darker recesses of the human mind was of great interest later in film-noir of the 40s and 50s, but was also quite popular amongst filmmakers and audiences in Russia before the revolution.
The sadistic voyeurism involved in watching a woman wreck the life of a young man through toying with his emotions (and his inner desires for love and affection) still intrigues – and to some degree, probably resonates, with audiences today. While the melodrama throughout the film sometimes gets a bit stale, the slow build up culminates in an intensely dramatic ending that compensates for the pacing. For today’s audiences, the street scenes are also a point of interest, because they gave audiences a glimpse into what Warsaw was like before WW2. This footage is mostly lost, because more than 90% of Polish films from before WW2 were destroyed.
The main event of the day, however, was the opening night screening, which consisted of two short films, and the grand melodrama The Mysterious Lady (Fred Niblo, 1928).
As a small gesture of respect and mourning over the terror attack in Nice earlier this year, the famous Jean Vigo documentary, À propos du Nice (1930), started off the evening in great fashion. It is a documentary that takes the pulse on everyday and tourist life in Nice. I have seen it a few times before, and it always cheers me up with its playful charm. It is also not afraid of being a little perverse, as it is not shy to utilize the male gaze in some shots, but it is done with good humour, and I doubt that it is audacious or overt enough that people would get offended by it.
The other short, a Polish newsreel (Fire Brigade Sport Event / Z dziedziny sportu strazackiego, 1930) showed me something I never knew had ever existed, and indeed I doubt many people know that this was even a thing.
In the forty seconds that it lasts, we see firemen try to move a gigantic ball with firehoses, trying to score goals with it as if it were a football game. Spectacular images let us see these firemen struggle when the giant ball, taller than themselves, get «stuck» in a corner of the muddy pitch. It’s incredible how less than a minute of newsreel from 1930 could evoke such joy and amusement today. That in itself exemplifies the power of cinema! Film history is not only useful for academic and empirical purposes, but it undeniably is also a lot of fun.
I can’t end this piece without writing about the main film of the day, The Mysterious Lady. It is the first film of the festival featuring the accompaniment of a full orchestra. And in a way, the film is so bombastic and pompous that it needs one.
The mysterious lady in the film is none other than Greta Garbo herself, a giant Hollywood film star of the 1920s, playing in her sixth film. More importantly, it was the first film where the “Garbo image” truly came to light – the playful, smart and sexy woman which both men and women alike became big fans of. While I think the film is already too drawn out at just 88 minutes, it is well worth seeing just to see a real silent film star completely own the room, the camera and the screen. When she is on screen, doing her thing, you get completely spellbound and mesmerized. This is, in part, aided by a new technical innovation that came with this film – the panchromatic film. Panchromatic, unlike the old orthochromatic, could pick up colors better, especially the colour red, and so Garbo’s “new” lips, eyes and skin helped her look even more stunning and alive on screen. The flapper style makeup, typical of a 1920s film star, did wonders in bring Garbo to life, giving her an immortal gravitas that captivates audiences, even up till today.
The first day of the festival was a blast, and jam-packed with screenings and other events. I haven’t even gone into detail about what else was going on on Day 1. There were other film screenings that I also could have written about, in addition to a welcome cocktail party in the evening, and , of course, the first day of the Collegium.
If you are reading this and ever plan on attending, it is worth noting that there are very few opportunities to eat lunch, because there is so much to see and experience.
In the words of the organizer-
“You have 51 other weeks in the year to eat lunch!”
(*hastily shoves peanuts into a Ziploc bag to sneak into the theatre*)
But for one week of a year, it is okay to eat a little less than usual with my mouth and more than ever before with my eyes and ears.
Can’t wait for the rest of the days!