At the first Collegium meeting, we were told to question everything we see during the festival.
What they meant, was that although archives and festivals like Pordenone Silent Film Festival try their best to offer the most complete and holistic representation of old films, the reality is that there is still a propensity for mistakes to occur, and there’s always a bit of guesswork that to be done in order to get things moving. Recognizing this, it was important to question the process and presentation of films and not take them at face value.
Case in point were the first few screenings of the day- another Who’s Guilty? short, and a program of short American films by director Al Christie- in which the number of frames per second seemed a little off – sometimes it goes too fast. (Although, it was common for theatres back in the day to ramp up the speed of the film to shorten its length, possibly to fit in more screenings per day, or to make up for delays).
Or it could sometimes be too slow. For a lot of the rediscovered prints in archives, there is no indication or direction for what speed they are intended to be played at. Even worse is when you are not sure about what order fragments or reels of the films are supposed to be played in, and this inevitably turns the archivists into editors themselves, when they try to guess and order the correct sequences of the films. Then of course there are issues with language and translation. Especially with old colloquialisms, the sometimes archaic manners of expression, or more lyrical ways of writing intertitles that are now obsolete, there is sometimes confusion during editing due to the existence of different versions of the same film. And more often than not, there are very damaged old reels that need a lot of fixing up before they can be played.
Thus, it is very impressive to me that Pordenone manages to curate such an extensive program every year, with loads of new restorations, especially given the painstaking process involved to recreate each one of them accurate, in as faithful a manner as possible to the original.
This year is the second year of the Luca Comerio program – a much forgotten Italian filmmaker who was active before and during World War I- who made both pre-documentary documentary films and fictive films. The documentary films were particularly interesting in their representation of the strong divide between social classes during the 1900s and 1910s.
Excelsior! (Luca Comerio, 1913) was to me a surprisingly early precursor to the “white telephone” films, which were essentially imitations of American comedies, which were popular in Italy during the 1930s. Most entertaining was L’avventura galante di un provinciale (1908), a bizarre Méliès-esque comedy in which a man desperate for romance finds a wiling “lady”. But as luck has it, it turns out that when they get to his bedroom, that the “lady” is no lady at all. When she takes off her fake legs (!) the man is both shocked and horrified. The climax of the undressing scene is when “she” opens her coat to reveal two balloons that burst out from her chest, floating up to the ceiling. Arguably my favourite scene of the day, and possibly the biggest laugh in the Teatro Verdi up to this point. Back in 1908 it was written off as a film done in bad taste by one reviewer, but today I’d consider it a small classic that works quite well today.
Speaking of classics: the Polish program also continued in full force. The afternoon program started off with the credits for the Polish Film Chronicle newsreel, which turned out to be a 9 second animation sequence– a rare treat for pre-WW2 Polish film. It was not until after the war that the animation production in Poland would really kick off, so this was quite the surprise. It then continued on to show a newsreel featuring, bizarrely enough, a “slow bicycling” competition. The camera showed a field filled with young military men each trying to cycle as slowly as possible, without falling off. It was strangely mesmerizing and comedic, and would not have been out of place in any Dadaist film work. (First the firemen hoses and giant balls, and now this. What else will come up!)
What blew me away was what followed: the feature film Janko the Musician (Janko muzykant, Ryszard Ordynski, 1930). I was rather sceptical going into it, because it is not really a silent film per se, but the audio track of the film is lost. So technically……ehhhh. Sound films without sound can be quite an ordeal (which I have written about in an earlier post) and especially given that this is a film about this man’s love for music.
However, these worries were quickly forgotten after the first few minutes for two reasons: firstly, the film excels in its use of the camera to tell the story with images, rather than being over reliant on sounds and words. It achieves this spectacularly because the narrative comes through clearly, and we gain a good perspective and angle even without the sound. Secondly, music legends Günter Buchwald and Frank Bockius were in charge of the accompaniment.
Bockius colored the film’s accompanying score with a wide range of percussion instruments (cow bells were used for scenes with cows!) while Buchwald, somehow, managed to provide the film with piano and violin accompaniment- while playing both at the same time!
The story of a child from an unfortunate background growing up to become a renowned and beloved violinist could not have gotten a better treatment, and at the end of the screening, there was obviously a resounding standing ovation for it.
Janko the Musician was one of several films of the day that had a melodramatic overtone to it, but none were quite as melodramatic as the film that rounded off the day, Kindred of the Dust (Raoul Walsh, 1922). Oddly traditional for an independent film, Kindred of the Dust was persistent in keeping its characters deeply unhappy until the final few minutes in which, of course, everything magically works out. It was a tad drawn out for a film capping off a long day, because the droll and melancholy of the plot, coupled with its pacing made it a bit much. Besides this though, it was redeemed to some degree by the costumes and decor by William Cameron Menzies ,which made the film very memorable. The lead actress Miriam Cooper (The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance) was particularly good in this one. She was capable of capturing the melancholic essence of her character very well and milked it for all its worth, fully communicating the full gravity of the anguish on screen.
Fun fact (or not): unfortunately, during the shooting of the film, she got an eye injury from looking directly into a stage light by accident, a move that would cause problems for her throughout her life. Yikes.
Day Two down, six to go – well worth the trip already!