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.
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.
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!
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 – 1933, a 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 (!).
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.
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.